Disproportionate sentencing for non-violent offences, while not surprising in a multi-jurisdictional continent, becomes central to the hierarchical fragility of a country built upon fairness and constitutional rights, when a convicted felon receives life imprisonment for drug related offences valued at less than $200 at the time of arrest.
In 1973, Virginia state police raided and recovered nine ounces of marijuana from the home of the defendant, prior to his conviction for possession with intent to distribute. When awarding judgment, the court passed a sentence of forty years imprisonment with a fine of $10,000, after which the defendant successfully appealed under habeas corpus, while contending that such an exorbitant term was in contravention to art.VIII of the US Constitution which reads:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
And s.1 of art.XIV which reads:
“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Unfortunately, a US court of appeals panel reversed the decision on grounds that at no point in history had the Court been found liable for cruel and unusual punishment when sentencing under the guidance of state legislation, however when reheard in full judicial capacity, the court amended its earlier judgment back in favour of the appellant.
Through the application of Rummel v. Estelle, in which a Texan defendant had been unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment for fraudulent misrepresentation to the value of just under $121, the US Supreme Court ruled that despite the extremity of the sentences, there was nothing unconstitutional about the application of maximum penalty through approved legislative framework, and that on this occasion, when the lower courts had relied upon the four principles used in Hart v. Coiner:
- No element of violence and minimal, debatable danger to the person
- Examination of the purposes behind criminal statute and alternative mitigating remedies
- Evidence of excessive penalty beyond maximum recommendations
- Evidence of disproportionate sentencing through comparative state analysis
To allow the appeal, they had collectively failed to recognise that federal courts should be slow to review legislative sentencing mandates, and that tradition clearly showed how such instances were both rare and intrusive to the doctrine that amendments to statute were privy to Congress and not the courts.
It was for these reasons that the US Supreme Court reversed the findings of the court of appeals, with explicit instruction to dismiss the habeas corpus, despite a majority dissent from within.