SOLEM V. HELM, 463 U. S. 277 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983)

Solem v. Helm

No. 82-492

Argued March 29, 1983

Decided June 28, 1983

463 U.S. 277


In 1979, respondent was convicted in a South Dakota state court of uttering a "no account" check for $100. Ordinarily the maximum punishment for that crime would have been five years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Respondent, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole under South Dakota's recidivist statute because of his six prior felony convictions -- three convictions for third-degree burglary and convictions for obtaining money under false pretenses, grand larceny, and third-offense driving while intoxicated. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. After respondent's request for commutation was denied, he sought habeas relief in Federal District Court, contending that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed.


1. The Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishments prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed. Pp. 463 U. S. 284-290.

(a) The principle of proportionality is deeply rooted in common law jurisprudence. It was expressed in Magna Carta, applied by the English courts for centuries, and repeated in the English Bill of Rights in language that was adopted in the Eighth Amendment. When the Framers of the Eighth Amendment adopted this language, they adopted the principle of proportionality that was implicit in it. Pp. 463 U. S. 284-286.

(b) The constitutional principle of proportionality has been recognized explicitly in this Court for almost a century. In several cases, the Court has applied the principle to invalidate criminal sentences. E.g., Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349. And the Court often has recognized that the Eighth Amendment proscribes grossly disproportionate punishments, even when it has not been necessary to rely on the proscription. Pp. 463 U. S. 286-288.

(c) There is no basis for the State's assertion that the principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences. Neither the text of the Eighth Amendment nor the history behind it supports such an exception. Moreover, this Court's cases have recognized explicitly that

Page 463 U. S. 278

prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis. No penalty is per se constitutional. Pp. 463 U. S. 288-290.

2. A court's proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment should be guided by objective criteria. Pp. 463 U. S. 290-295.

(a) Criteria that have been recognized in this Court's prior cases include (i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction, that is, whether more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty or to less serious penalties; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. Pp. 463 U. S. 290-292.

(b) Courts are competent to judge the gravity of an offense, at least on a relative scale. Comparisons can be made in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim or to society, and the culpability of the offender. There are generally accepted criteria for comparing the severity of different crimes, despite the difficulties courts face in attempting to draw distinctions between similar crimes. Pp. 463 U. S. 292-294.

(c) Courts are also able to compare different sentences. For sentences of imprisonment, the problem is one of line-drawing. Decisions of this kind, although troubling, are not unique to this area. The courts are constantly called upon to draw similar lines in a variety of contexts. Cf. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U. S. 514; Baldwin v. New York, 399 U. S. 66. Pp. 463 U. S. 294-295.

3. In light of the relevant objective criteria, respondent's sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole is significantly disproportionate to his crime, and is therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 463 U. S. 295-303.

(a) Respondent's crime of uttering a "no account" check for $100 is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. It involved neither violence nor threat of violence, and the face value of the check was not a large amount. Respondent's prior felonies were also relatively minor. All were nonviolent, and none was a crime against a person. Respondent's sentence was the most severe that the State could have imposed on any criminal for any crime. He has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, other criminals in South Dakota who have committed far more serious crimes. Nevada is the only other State that authorizes a life sentence without possibility of parole in the circumstances of this case, and there is no indication that any defendant such as respondent, whose prior offenses were so minor, has received the maximum penalty in Nevada. Pp. 463 U. S. 296-300.

(b) The possibility of commutation of a life sentence under South Dakota law is not sufficient to save respondent's otherwise unconstitutional sentence on the asserted theory that this possibility matches the possibility of parole. Assuming good behavior, parole is the normal

Page 463 U. S. 279

expectation in the vast majority of cases, and is governed by specified legal standards. Commutation is an ad hoc exercise of executive clemency that may occur at any time for any reason without reference to any standards. In South Dakota, no life sentence has been commuted in over eight years, while parole -- where authorized -- has been granted regularly during that period. Moreover, even if respondent's sentence were commuted, he merely would be eligible to be considered for parole. Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U. S. 263, distinguished. Pp. 463 U. S. 300-303.

684 F.2d 582, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined,post, p. 463 U. S. 304.

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