Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment Limitations on Sentencing

The Text of the Eighth Amendment

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.

Case Law Interpreting the Eighth Amendment

A court's discretion in sentencing a defendant is also limited by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the imposition of excessive fines and the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. The Excessive Fines Clause has proven to have little effect over the course of the last two centuries. Trial judges are afforded extremely wide discretion in assessing fines on criminal defendants, and they are rarely overturned on appeal. For a fine to be overturned there must be proof that it was arbitrary, capricious, or so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law. As a practical matter, the cost of appealing a fine often exceeds the amount of the fine itself, thereby reducing the incentive to appeal.

On the other hand, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause has been the subject of much litigation. This clause requires every punishment imposed by the government to be commensurate with the offense committed by the defendant. Punishments that are disproportionately harsh will be overturned on appeal. Examples of punishments that have been overturned on Eighth Amendment grounds include two Georgia statutes that prescribed the death penalty for rape and kidnapping (see Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 97 S. Ct. 2861, 53 L. Ed.2d 982 (1977); Eberheart v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 917, 97 L. Ed.2d 2994, 53 L. Ed. 2d 1104 [1977]). The Supreme Court has also ruled that criminal sentences that are inhumane, outrageous, barbarous, or shock the social consciousness also violate the Eighth Amendment.

In 1972 the U. S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium on capital punishment throughout the United States, declaring that the statutes authorizing the death penalty were too broad and allowed for arbitrary and discriminatory application by judges and juries (see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 [1972]). But four years later the Supreme Court upheld three new state statutes that were enacted to cure those flaws (see Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 [1976]). Thirty-five states and the federal government soon followed suit by revising their death penalty statutes to comply with the Eighth Amendment, and the nation's high court has since shown reluctance to closely scrutinize these statutes.

However, in 2001 the Georgia Supreme Court surprised many legal observers when it banned use of the electric chair in executing death row inmates (see Dawson v. State, ― S.E.2d ―, 2001 WL 1180615 [GA.2001]). The court said that death by electrocution violated the state constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it inflicted purposeless violence and needless mutilation on the prisoner, and as such made no measurable contribution to the accepted goals of punishment (see GA Const. Art. 1, ¤ 1, par. 17). At the same time, the court stressed that it was not calling into question Georgia's entire system of capital punishment. On the contrary, the court said that death by lethal injection raised no constitutional questions because it was minimally intrusive and involved no mutilation.

Appeal and other Post-Conviction Proceedings

The federal Constitution does not guarantee the right to appeal a criminal conviction. However, every state affords defendants the right to have at least one appellate court review the record for trial court errors. Many of these states restrict the subject matter of what may be appealed, curtail the time in which an appeal may be taken, or permit appellate courts to issue decisions upon the record and briefs submitted by the parties without holding a hearing or entertaining oral arguments. Federal statutes grant criminal defendants in federal court the right to appeal. Only one review is granted as a matter of right, and this is to the U. S. Court of Appeals. Review of state and federal convictions by the U. S. Supreme Court is discretionary.

After incarcerated defendants have exhausted all appeals without success, they may file a writ of habeas corpus. This is a civil suit against the warden of the prison, challenging the constitutionality of the incarceration. A habeas corpus petition is not anoth- er appeal. The only basis for granting relief to a habeas corpus petitioner is the deprivation of a constitutional right. For example, an inmate might claim that he or she was denied the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment on grounds that their attorney was incompetent. Violations of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures are not grounds for granting a writ of habeas corpus.

If a defendant loses on appeal and is denied a writ of habeas corpus, most jurisdictions offer a few last-ditch remedies. If the sentence includes parole, an inmate may petition the parole board to move up the date for parole. Inmates of state prisons may ask the governor of the state in which they are imprisoned for clemency. If granted, clemency normally includes the restoration of a released inmate's civil rights, such as the right to vote and own a gun. A commutation of sentence is a lesser form of clemency, since it does not restore the legal rights of the inmate but only releases him or her from incarceration. Federal inmates may ask the president of the United States for a pardon, which, like clemency, releases the inmate from custody and restores his or her legal rights and privileges.