Ruling 2-1, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the term handed to a California man convicted of stealing a $199 VCR violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The appeals court said the punishment did not fit the crime even though the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the same sentences for two California shoplifters.
The Supreme Court upheld California's three strikes law allowing petty crimes to be the third strike triggering a 25-to-life term, provided the first two strikes were serious or violent felonies.
In the case of Isaac Ramirez decided Monday, the appeals court said his priors were minimal: two unarmed robbery convictions. The defendants the Supreme Court dealt with last year had lengthy and sometimes violent criminal pasts.
Without the three strikes law, Ramirez would have been eligible for up to a year in prison.
A spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who urged the court to uphold the 25-year term, said the office was reviewing the lengthy decision and could not immediately comment.
After serving more than five years for the VCR offense, a federal judge released Ramirez in 2002 under reasoning the appeals court affirmed Monday.
Ramirez, who argued his case before the appeals panel, could not be reached for comment.
By David Kravets