Harmelin v. Michigan
In Harmelin v. Michigan (1991) 501 U.S. 957, the defendant was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after being convicted of possessing 672 grams of cocaine. Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that the Eighth Amendment did not contain a proportionality guarantee for noncapital offenses. (Harmelin, at p. 965 (lead opn. of Scalia, J.).)
Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices O'Connor and Souter, concluded that the Eighth Amendment contained a narrow proportionality principal. (Harmelin, at p. 997 (conc. opn. of Kennedy, J.).) Justice Kennedy discerned several principles to give content to this narrow review.
The first principle is that prison sentences involve penological judgments best left to the Legislature. (Id. at p. 998.)
Second, the Eighth Amendment does not require every state to adopt the same penological theory. (Harmelin, at p. 999.)
Third, it is inevitable that there will be marked divergences in both penological theory and in sentencing between the states, making comparisons between the states problematic. (Ibid.) Fourth, proportionality analysis should be guided by objective factors to the maximum extent possible with the most prominent factor being the type of punishment imposed. (Id. at p. 1000.)
These principles led Justice Kennedy to conclude that the "Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." (Id. at p. 1001.)
In Harmelin v. Michigan, a majority held that a state mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole for a single conviction of possessing substantial amounts of cocaine did not violate the federal Constitution.
Two justices opined the federal Constitution contains no guarantee of the "proportionality" of noncapital sentences imposed by state law.
The three concurring justices opined the federal Constitution forbids "extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime," but found the sentence in that case did not exceed that limit. ( Harmelin v. Michigan, supra, 501 U.S. at pp. 965 opn. of Scalia, J., 1001, opn. of Kennedy, J..)
The Court held that a life sentence without possibility of parole for possessing 672 grams of cocaine was upheld.
While Harmelin did not contain a majority opinion with respect to the issue, two justices concluded the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee ( id. at p. 965 . . . (opn. of Scalia, J.)) and three other justices concluded the amendment forbids only those sentences that are "'grossly disproportionate'" to the crime ( id. at p. 1001 . . . (opn. of Kennedy, J.)).
Even those justices recognizing a guarantee of proportionality review stressed that, outside the context of capital punishment, successful challenges to particular sentences are ""exceedingly rare"" because of the 'relative lack of objective standards concerning terms of imprisonment . . . .' (Ibid.)" Two justices concluded the Eighth Amendment does not require that a sentence for a noncapital crime be proportionate to the crime committed. (Harmelin, at pp. 985-994 (lead opn. of Scalia, J., joined by Rehnquist, C.J.).) Three other justices concluded the Eighth Amendment forbids only those sentences that are "'grossly disproportionate'" to the crime. (Harmelin, at p. 1001 (conc. opn. of Kennedy, J., joined by O'Connor, J., & Souter, J.).) Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter concluded that the defendant's sentence was not grossly disproportionate to his crime. ( Id. at p. 1005.)
Justice Kennedy said, in a concurring opinion, that in determining whether punishment is greatly disproportionate to the offense, we must consider that "the fixing of prison terms for specific crimes involves a substantive penological judgment that, as a general matter, is 'properly within the province of legislatures, not courts.'" ( Id. at p. 998.) Thus, it is up to the state to choose the penological theory it wishes to adopt. ( Harmelin v. Michigan, supra, 501 U.S. at p. 999.) Difference in "the underlying theories of sentencing and in the length of prescribed prison terms are the inevitable, often beneficial, result of the federal structure." (Ibid.)
In Harmelin v. Michigan, another bare majority of the court revisited Solem and upheld the sentence of life without parole imposed on a defendant for possession of 672 grams of cocaine, his first felony offense. ( Harmelin, supra, 501 U.S. at p. 961.) In the plurality opinion, Justice Scalia determined that Solem had been wrongly decided, and that "the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee." ( Id. at p. 965 (lead opn. of Scalia, J.).) In a concurring opinion, Justices Kennedy, O'Connor and Souter concluded the Eighth Amendment still contains "a narrow proportionality principle." ( Id. at p. 997 (conc. opn. of Kennedy, J.).)
After considering the historical context in which the Eighth Amendment was enacted, the concurring justices noted it "does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime." ( Id. at p. 1001.)
Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion also noted that unless a "threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality," courts need not consider the other two Solem factors. ( Id. at p. 1005.)