USA > US Constitution > Proportionality


Justice Field in O'Neil v. Vermont178 argued in dissent that in addition to prohibiting punishments deemed barbarous and inhumane the Eighth Amendment also condemned "all punishments which by their excessive length or severity are greatly disproportionate to the offenses charged." In Weems v. United States,179 this view was adopted by the Court in striking down a sentence in the Philippine Islands of 15 years incarceration at hard labor with chains on the ankles, loss of all civil rights, and perpetual surveil-lance, for the offense of falsifying public documents. The Court compared the sentence with those meted out for other offenses and concluded: "This contrast shows more than different exercises of legislative judgment. It is greater than that. It condemns the sentence in this case as cruel and unusual. It exhibits a difference between unrestrained power and that which is exercised under the spirit of constitutional limitations formed to establish justice."180 Punishments as well as fines, therefore, can be condemned as excessive.181

In Robinson v. California182 the Court carried the principle to new heights, setting aside a conviction under a law making it a crime to "be addicted to the use of narcotics." The statute was unconstitutional because it punished the "mere status" of being an addict without any requirement of a showing that a defendant had ever used narcotics within the jurisdiction of the State or had committed any act at all within the State's power to proscribe, and because addiction is an illness which—however it is acquired—physiologically compels the victim to continue using drugs. The case could stand for the principle, therefore, that one may not be punished for a status in the absence of some act,183 or it could stand for the broader principle that it is cruel and unusual to punish someone for conduct he is unable to control, a holding of far-reaching importance.184 In Powell v. Texas,185 a majority of the Justices took the latter view of Robinson, but the result, because of a view of the facts held by one Justice, was a refusal to invalidate a conviction of an alcoholic for public drunkenness. Whether the Eighth Amendment or the due process clauses will govern the requirement of the recognition of capacity defenses to criminal charges, or whether either will, remains to be decided in future cases.

178 144 U.S. 323, 339-40 (1892). See also Howard v. Fleming, 191 U.S. 126, 135- 36 (1903).

179 217 U.S. 349 (1910). The Court was here applying not the Eighth Amendment but a statutory bill of rights applying to the Philippines which it interpreted as having the same meaning. Id. at 367.

180 217 U.S. at 381.

181 "The Eighth Amendment succinctly prohibits 'excessive' sanctions." Atkins v. Virginia, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 2247 (2002) (applying proportionality review to determine whether execution of the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual). Proportionality in the context of capital punishment is considered supra under "Limitations on Capital Punishment: Proportionality."

182 370 U.S. 660 (1962).

183 A different approach to essentially the same problem was Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199 (1960), in which a conviction for loitering and disorderly conduct was set aside as being supported by "no evidence whatever" that defendant had done anything. Cf. Johnson v. Florida, 391 U.S. 596 (1968) (no evidence that the defendant was "wandering or strolling around" in violation of vagrancy law).

184 Fully applied, the principle would raise to constitutional status the concept of mens rea, and it would thereby constitutionalize some form of insanity defense as well as other capacity defenses. For a somewhat different approach, see Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957) (due process denial for city to apply felon registration requirement to someone present in city but lacking knowledge of requirement). More recently, this controversy has become a due process matter, with the holding that the due process clause requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the facts necessary to constitute the crime charged, Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975), raising the issue of the insanity defense and other such questions. See Rivera v. Delaware, 429 U.S. 877 (1976), Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 202-05 (1977). In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 297 n.22 (1983), an Eighth Amendment proportionality case, the Court suggested in dictum that life imprisonment without possibility of parole of a recidivist who was an alcoholic, and all of whose crimes had been influenced by his alcohol use, was "unlikely to advance the goals of our criminal justice system in any substantial way."

185 392 U.S. 514 (1968). The plurality opinion by Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Black and Harlan and Chief Justice Warren, interpreted Robinson as proscribing only punishment of "status," and not punishment for "acts," and expressed a fear that a contrary holding would impel the Court into constitutional definitions of such matters as actus reus, mens rea, insanity, mistake, justification, and duress. Id. at 532-37. Justice White concurred, but only because the record did not show that the defendant was unable to stay out of public; like the dissent, Justice White was willing to hold that if addiction as a status may not be punished neither can the yielding to the compulsion of that addiction, whether to narcotics or to alcohol. Id. at 548. Dissenting Justices Fortas, Douglas, Brennan, and Stewart wished to adopt a rule that "[c]riminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change." That is, one under an irresistible compulsion to drink or to take narcotics may not be punished for those acts. Id. at 554, 567.

The Court has gone back and forth in its acceptance of proportionality analysis in noncapital cases. It appeared that such analysis had been closely cabined in Rummel v. Estelle,186 upholding a mandatory life sentence under a recidivist statute following a third felony conviction, even though the defendant's three nonviolent felonies had netted him a total of less than $230. The Court reasoned that the unique quality of the death penalty rendered capital cases of limited value, and Weems was distinguished on the basis that the length of the sentence was of considerably less concern to the Court than were the brutal prison conditions and the post-release denial of significant rights imposed under the peculiar Philippine penal code. Thus, in order to avoid improper judicial interference with state penal systems, Eighth Amendment judgments must be informed by objective factors to the maximum extent possible. But when the challenge to punishment goes to the length rather than the seriousness of the offense, the choice is necessarily subjective. Therefore, the Rummel rule appeared to be that States may punish any behavior properly classified as a felony with any length of imprisonment purely as a matter legislative grace.187 The Court dismissed as unavailing the factors relied on by the defendant. First, the fact that the nature of the offense was nonviolent was found not necessarily relevant to the seriousness of a crime, and the determination of what is a "small" amount of money, being so subjective, was a legislative task. In any event, the State could focus on recidivism, not the specific acts. Second, the comparison of punishment imposed for the same offenses in other jurisdictions was found unhelpful, differences and similarities being more subtle than gross, and in any case in a federal system one jurisdiction would always be more severe than the rest. Third, the comparison of punishment imposed for other offenses in the same State ignored the recidivism aspect.188chanrobles-red

186 445 U.S. 263 (1980). The opinion, by Justice Rehnquist, was concurred in by Chief Justice Burger and Justices Stewart, White, and Blackmun. Dissenting were Justices Powell, Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens. Id. at 285.

187 In Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370 (1982), on the authority of Rummel, the Court summarily reversed a decision holding disproportionate a prison term of 40 years and a fine of $20,000 for defendant's possession and distribution of approximately nine ounces of marijuana said to have a street value of about $200.

188 Rummel, 445 U.S. at 275-82. The dissent deemed these three factors to be sufficiently objective to apply and thought they demonstrated the invalidity of the sentence imposed. Id. at 285, 295-303.

Rummel was distinguished in Solem v. Helm,189 the Court stating unequivocally that the cruel and unusual punishments clause "prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed," and that "[t]here is no basis for the State's assertion that the general principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences."190 Helm, like Rummel, had been sentenced under a recidivist statute following conviction for a nonviolent felony involving a small amount of money.191 The difference was that Helm's sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole was viewed as "far more severe than the life sentence we described in Rummel."192 Rummel, the Court pointed out, had been eligible for parole after 12 years' imprisonment, while Helm had only the possibility of executive clemency, characterized by the Court as "nothing more than a hope for 'an ad hoc exercise of clemency."'193 In Helm the Court also spelled out the "objective criteria" by which proportionality issues should be judged: "(i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions."194 Measured by these criteria Helm's sentence was cruel and unusual. His crime was relatively minor, yet life imprisonment without possibility for parole was the harshest penalty possible in South Dakota, reserved for such other offenses as murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and arson. In only one other state could he have received so harsh a sentence, and in no other state was it mandated.195chanrobles-red

189 463 U.S. 277 (1983). The case, as Rummel, was decided by 5-4 vote, with the Rummel dissenters, joined by Justice Blackmun from the Rummel majority, composing the majority, and with Justice O'Connor taking Justice Stewart's place in opposition to holding the sentence invalid. Justice Powell wrote the opinion of the Court in Helm, and Chief Justice Burger wrote the dissent.

190 463 U.S. at 284, 288.

191 The final conviction was for uttering a no-account check in the amount of $100; previous felony convictions were also for nonviolent crimes described by the Court as "relatively minor." 463 U.S. at 296-97.

192 463 U.S. at 297.

193 463 U.S. at 303.

194 463 U.S. at 292.

195 For a suggestion that Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis may limit the severity of punishment possible for prohibited private and consensual homosexual conduct, see Justice Powell's concurring opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, 197 (1986).

The Court remained closely divided in holding in Harmelin v. Michigan196 that a mandatory term of life imprisonment without possibility of parole was not cruel and unusual as applied to the crime of possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine. There was an opinion of the Court only on the issue of the mandatory nature of the penalty, the Court rejecting an argument that sentencers in non-capital cases must be allowed to hear mitigating evidence.197 As to the length of sentence, three majority Justices—Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter—would recognize a narrow proportionality principle, but considered Harmelin's crime severe and by no means grossly disproportionate to the penalty imposed.198

Twelve years after Harmelin the Court still could not reach a consensus on rationale for rejecting a proportionality challenge to California’s “three-strikes” law, as applied to sentence a repeat felon to 25 years to life imprisonment for stealing three golf clubs valued at $399 apiece.1 A plurality of three Justices (O’Connor, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Rehnquist) determined that the sentence was “justified by the State’s public safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by [the petitioner’s] long, serious criminal record,”and hence was not the “rare case” of “gross disproportional[ity].” 2 The other two Justices voting in the majority were Justice Scalia, who objected that the proportionality principle cannot be intelligently applied when the penological goal is incapacitation rather than retribution,3 and Justice Thomas, who asserted that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause “contains no proportionality principle.” 4 Not surprisingly, the Court also rejected a habeas corpus challenge to California’s “three-strikes” law for failure to clear the statutory hurdle of establishing that the sentencing was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, “clearly established federal law.” 5 Justice O’Connor’s opinion for a five-Justice majority explained, in under-statement, that the Court’s precedents in the area “have not been a model of clarity . . . that have established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow.” 6chanrobles-red

196 501 U.S. 957 (1991).

197 "Severe, mandatory penalties may be cruel, but they are not unusual in the constitutional sense." 501 U.S. at 994. The Court's opinion, written by Justice Scalia, then elaborated an understanding of "unusual"—set forth elsewhere in a part of his opinion subscribed to only by Chief Justice Rehnquist—that denies the possibility of proportionality review altogether. Mandatory penalties are not unusual in the constitutional sense because they have "been employed in various form throughout our Nation's history." This is an application of Justice Scalia's belief that cruelty and unusualness are to be determined solely by reference to the punishment at issue, and without reference to the crime for which it is imposed. See id. at 975- 78 (not opinion of Court—only Chief Justice Rehnquist joined this portion of the opinion). Because a majority of other Justices indicated in the same case that they do recognize at least a narrow proportionality principle (see id. at 996 (Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter concurring); id. at 1009 (Justices White, Blackmun, and Stevens dissenting); id. at 1027 (Justice Marshall dissenting)), the fact that three of those Justices (Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter) joined Justice Scalia's opinion on mandatory penalties should probably not be read as representing agreement with Justice Scalia's general approach to proportionality.

198 Because of the "serious nature" of the crime, the 3-Justice plurality asserted that there was no need to apply the other Solem factors comparing the sentence to sentences imposed for other crimes in Michigan, and to sentences imposed for the same crime in other jurisdictions. 501 U.S. at 1004. Dissenting Justice White, joined by Justices Blackmun and Stevens (Justice Marshall also expressed agreement on this and most other points, id. at 1027), asserted that Justice Kennedy's approach would "eviscerate" Solem. Id. at 1018.

1 Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003).

2 538 U.S. at 29–30.

3 538 U.S. at 31.

4 538 U.S. at 32. The dissenting Justices thought that the sentence was invalid under the Harmelin test used by the plurality, although they suggested that the Solem v. Helm test would have been more appropriate for a recidivism case. See 538 U.S. at 32, n.1 (opinion of Justice Stevens).

5 Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003). The three-strikes law had been used to impose two consecutive 25–year-to-life sentences on a 37–year-old convicted of two petty thefts with a prior conviction.

6 538 U.S. at 72.

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