Harmelin v. Michigan
501 U.S. 957 (1991)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)

Harmelin v. Michigan

No. 89-7272

Argued November 5, 1990

Decided June 27, 1991

501 U.S. 957

Syllabus

Petitioner Harmelin was convicted under Michigan law of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without possibility of parole. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting his argument that the sentence was "cruel and unusual" within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. He claims here that the sentence is cruel and unusual because it is "significantly disproportionate" to the crime he committed, and because the sentencing judge was statutorily required to impose it, without taking into account the particularized circumstances of the crime and of the criminal.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

176 Mich. App. 524, 440 N.W.2d 75, affirmed.

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part IV, concluding that Harmelin's claim that his sentence is unconstitutional because it is mandatory in nature, allowing the sentencer no opportunity to consider "mitigating factors," has no support in the Eighth Amendment's text and history. Severe, mandatory penalties may be cruel, but they are not unusual in the constitutional sense, having been employed in various forms throughout the Nation's history. Although Harmelin's claim finds some support in the so-called "individualized capital sentencing doctrine" of this Court's death penalty jurisprudence, see, e.g., Woodson v. North Carolina,428 U. S. 280, that doctrine may not be extended outside the capital context, because of the qualitative differences between death and all other penalties, see, e.g., id. at 428 U. S. 303-305. Pp. 501 U. S. 994-996.

JUSTICE SCALIA, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, concluded in Parts I, II, and III that, because the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee, Harmelin's sentence cannot be considered unconstitutionally disproportional. Pp. 501 U. S. 962-994.

(a) For crimes concededly classified and classifiable as felonies -- i.e., as punishable by significant terms of imprisonment in a state penitentiary -- the length of the sentence actually imposed is purely a matter of legislative prerogative. Rummel v. Estelle,445 U. S. 263, 445 U. S. 274. Solem v. Helm,463 U. S. 277, which decreed a "general principle of proportionality," id. at 463 U. S. 288, and used as the criterion for its application a three-factor test that had been explicitly rejected in Rummel, supra, at

Page 501 U. S. 958

445 U. S. 281-282, and n. 27, and Hutto v. Davis,454 U. S. 370, 454 U. S. 373-374, was wrong, and should be overruled. Pp. 501 U. S. 962-965.

(b) Although Solem, supra at 463 U. S. 285, correctly discerned that the Eighth Amendment prohibition was derived from the "cruell and unusuall Punishments" provision of the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, Solem's conclusion that the latter provision embodied a right to be free from disproportionate punishments is refuted by the circumstances of the declaration's enactment and the contemporaneous understanding of the English guarantee. The guarantee was directed at the arbitrary use of the sentencing power by the King's Bench in particular cases, and at the illegality, rather than the disproportionality, of punishments thereby imposed. Pp. 501 U. S. 966-975.

(c) That the Americans who adopted the Eighth Amendment intended its Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as a check on the ability of the Legislature to authorize particular modes of punishment -- i.e., cruel methods of punishment that are not regularly or customarily employed -- rather than as a guarantee against disproportionate sentences is demonstrated by the available evidence of contemporary understanding, including the context of adoption, the debates of the state ratifying conventions and the First Congress, and early commentary and judicial decisions. It is particularly telling that those who framed and approved the Federal Constitution chose not to include within it the explicit guarantee against disproportionate sentences that some State Constitutions contained. Pp. 501 U. S. 975-985.

(d) There are no adequate textual or historical standards to enable judges to determine whether a particular penalty is disproportional. The first two of the factors that Solem found relevant -- the inherent gravity of the defendant's offense and the sentences imposed for similarly grave offenses in some jurisdictions -- fail for lack of an objective standard of gravity. Since, as the statutes Americans have enacted in different times and places demonstrate, there is enormous variation of opinion as to what offenses are serious, the proportionality principle is an invitation for judges to impose their own subjective values. Moreover, although the third Solem factor -- the character of the sentences imposed by other States for the same crime -- can be applied with clarity and ease, it is irrelevant to the Eighth Amendment. Traditional notions of federalism entitle States to treat like situations differently in light of local needs, concerns, and social conditions. Pp. 501 U. S. 985-990.

(e) Although this Court's 20th-century jurisprudence has not remained entirely in accord with the proposition that there is no Eighth Amendment proportionality requirement, it has not departed to the extent that Solem suggests. While Weems v. United States,217 U. S. 349 -- which was cited by Solem, supra at 463 U. S. 287, as the "leading case" -- did contain language suggesting that mere disproportionality might make a

Page 501 U. S. 959

punishment cruel and unusual, 217 U.S. at 217 U. S. 366-367, it also contained statements indicating that the unique punishment there at issue was unconstitutional because it was unknown to Anglo-American tradition, id. at 217 U. S. 377. It is hard to view Weems as announcing a constitutional proportionality requirement, given that it did not produce a decision implementing such a requirement, either in this Court or the lower federal courts, for six decades. This Court's first such opinion, Coker v. Georgia,433 U. S. 584, 433 U. S. 592, was a death penalty case. The Coker line of authority should not be treated as a generalized aspect of Eighth Amendment law, since proportionality review is one of several respects in which "death is different," requiring protections that the Constitution nowhere else provides. Pp. 501 U. S. 990-994.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, joined by JUSTICE O'CONNOR and JUSTICE SOUTER, concluded:

1. This Court's decisions recognize that the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause encompasses a narrow proportionality principle that applies to noncapital sentences. See, e.g., Weems v. United States,217 U. S. 349, 217 U. S. 371; Rummel v. Estelle,445 U. S. 263, 445 U. S. 271-274, and n. 11; Hutto v. Davis,454 U. S. 370, 454 U. S. 374, and n. 3; Solem v. Helm,463 U. S. 277. Although these decisions have not been totally clear or consistent, close analysis yields some common principles that give content to the uses and limits of proportionality review. First, the fixing of prison terms for specific crimes involves a substantial penological judgment that, as a general matter, is properly within the province of the legislature, and reviewing courts should grant substantial deference to legislative determinations. Second, there are a variety of legitimate penological schemes based on theories of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, and the Eighth Amendment does not mandate adoption of any one such scheme. Third, marked divergences both in sentencing theories and the length of prescribed prison terms are the inevitable, often beneficial, result of the federal structure, and differing attitudes and perceptions of local conditions may yield different, yet rational, conclusions regarding the appropriate length of terms for particular crimes. Fourth, proportionality review by federal courts should be informed by objective factors to the maximum extent possible, and the relative lack of objective standards concerning length, as opposed to type, of sentence has resulted in few successful proportionality challenges outside the capital punishment context. Finally, the Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence, but rather forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime. Pp. 501 U. S. 996-1001.

2. Tn light of the foregoing principles, Harmelin's sentence does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Although a sentence

Page 501 U. S. 960

of life imprisonment without parole is the second most severe penalty permitted by law, it is not grossly disproportionate to Harmelin's crime of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine. His suggestion that the crime was nonviolent and victimless is false to the point of absurdity. Studies demonstrate the grave threat that illegal drugs, and particularly cocaine, pose to society in terms of violence, crime, and social displacement. The amount of cocaine Harmelin possessed has a potential yield of between 32,500 and 65,000 doses, and the Michigan Legislature could with reason conclude that possession of this large an amount is momentous enough to warrant the deterrence and retribution of a life sentence without parole. Given the severity of Harmelin's crime, there is no need to conduct a comparative analysis between his sentence and sentences imposed for other crimes in Michigan and for the same crime in other jurisdictions. This Court's decisions indicate that such an analysis is appropriate in the rare case in which a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality, see Solem, supra at 463 U. S. 293-300; Weems, supra at 217 U. S. 377-381, but not in the usual case where no such inference arises, see, e.g., Rummel, supra at 445 U. S. 281. Pp. 501 U. S. 1001-1005.

SCALIA, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Part IV, in which REHNQUIST C.J., and O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts I, II, and III, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which O'CONNOR and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 501 U. S. 996. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 501 U. S. 1009. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 501 U. S. 1027. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 501 U. S. 1028.

Page 501 U. S. 961

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