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Harmelin v. Michigan

    Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner Harmelin was convicted of possessing 672 grams of cocaine and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Petitioner claims that the punishment of life imprisonment is significantly disproportionate to possession of cocaine and therefore is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual under the Eight Amendment.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Eighth Amendment, which provides that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”, does not contain a proportionality guarantee.

    Facts. Petitioner was convicted of possessing 672 grams of cocaine and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Petitioner claims that the punishment of life imprisonment is significantly disproportionate to possession of cocaine and therefore is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual under the Eight Amendment as applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the United States Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue. Does the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution contain a proportionality guarantee with regard to punishment?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    The Eighth Amendment, which provides that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”, does not contain a proportionality guarantee. While the Eighth Amendment enables judges to determine which modes of punishment are cruel and unusual, “proportionality does not lend itself to such analysis”.

    The majority’s rationale for the above holding is that if we were to allow such analysis of the proportionality principle, we would be, in effect, imposing subjective values as to what is and what is not proportional based on subjective views on the gravity of the crimes committed. The Court states that it is up to the legislature, and not the judiciary, to make such determinations.

    Dissent. The majority, in its discussion with regard to the existence of a proportionality requirement with regard to the death penalty, has recognized that a punishment may violate the Eighth Amendment if it is “contrary to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” The dissent argues that such a recognition requires that the three prong test set forth in Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), which looks at the harm caused, the sentence imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction and the sentences imposed for the same crime in other jurisdictions, be used to evaluate whether or not the statute in question violates the Eight Amendment.

    Concurrence. The majority overruled Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), which recognized a general principle of proportionality. Stare decisis requires that we adhere to the narrow proportionality principle that has existed in our Eight Amendment jurisprudence for 80 years. Such a requirement does not require strict proportionality between the crime and the sentence but instead forbids extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime. The concurring judges agreed, however, that in the case at bar, the sentence was not grossly disproportionate to the crime and therefore agree with the majority decision.

    Discussion. This case, according to the casebook notes, has been interpreted as preserving the proportionality requirement in accordance with the concurring opinion.


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