In re Lynch




California Supreme Court

Citation and Year

503 P.2d 921 (1972)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

CAL. CONST. art. 1, § 17 (“cruel or unusual punishments”)

Nature of Case

After a second conviction for indecent exposure in the span of nine years, John Lynch was given an indeterminate sentence of one year to life in prison. He challenged the sentence as unconstitutionally excessive.


A life sentence for a second-offense indecent exposure was unconstitutionally disproportionate under California’s prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment.


The court explained that, “legislative authority remains ultimately circumscribed by the constitutional provision forbidding the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment, adopted by the people of this state as an integral part of our Declaration of Rights. It is the difficult but imperative task of the judicial branch, as coequal guardian of the Constitution, to condemn any violation of that prohibition.” Next, it reasoned that under California’s then-indeterminate sentencing scheme, it is the maximum sentence (in this case, life) that must withstand constitutional scrutiny. The court then recognized a proportionality requirement under California’s constitution that turns on the following factors: (1) nature of the offense and/or the offender, with particular regard to the degree of danger both present to society; (2) penalties issued in the state for different offenses; and (3) comparing penalties in other states for the same offense. Each of the factors, the court found, showed the disproportionality of a life sentence for second-offense indecent exposure.