Hutto v. Davis (1982)

US Criminal Law

Hutto v Davis
Image: ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Barbara St. Jean

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:

  1. No element of violence and minimal, debatable danger to the person
  2. Examination of the purposes behind criminal statute and alternative mitigating remedies
  3. Evidence of excessive penalty beyond maximum recommendations
  4. 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 thus 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.

Ahmad v United Kingdom (1982)

English Constitutional Law

Ahmad v United Kingdom
Image: ‘Mosque Muslim Art Painting’ by Richa Maheshwari

While paving the way for a number of similar ‘religious obligations’ versus ‘convention rights’ cases, this protracted legal discourse reveals a number of indiscretions, that in many respects, served to influence legislative and educational policy in the United Kingdom, and illustrate how laws evolve through the integration of cultural norms and progressive state cohabitation.

After working as a supply teacher within the mainstream schools arena for a considerable number of years, the Islamic applicant took issue with the government, upon grounds that his need (or at least doctrinal requirement) to attend a mosque on Friday afternoons was being denied by statute; and that subsequent operational policy created the violation of a number of constitutional rights afforded to all citizens of the United Kingdom.

Citing art.9(1) of the ECHR (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and art.14 (prohibition of discrimination), the applicant protested that s.30 of the Education Act 1994 stood in immediate conflict with his need to manifest his religious beliefs every Friday between the hours of 1.30pm to 2.15pm. Having been employed by a number of London Borough schools prior to his decision to resign rather than reduce his working hours, the applicant had been given verbal allowances by one school, and shown strict opposition by another, which bore an inconsistent position of unwillingness to accommodate a religious need, which until recently, had never been expressed nor discussed at the time of his original appointment.

When it was submitted that the repeated failure of a Muslim man to attend a mosque (subject to relative distances) would likely result in a beheading in a country such as Saudi Arabia, the applicant expected that the same principles would apply under  domestic jurisdiction, and that those grounds, along with previous (albeit unofficial) allowances were sufficient enough to warrant time taken from his contractual duties, despite any inconvenience to teaching  staff, pupils or the school as a whole.

After failing to find those arguments upheld in the domestic courts, the matter wound up before the European Commission for Human Rights, where it was unanimously decided that the terms of the Convention were constructed in such as fashion as to allow interpretation and consideration of all religions and beliefs, not just those of the applicant; and yet when willingly accepting a position of employment that brings with it a set of express and implied terms, the accepting individual takes ownership of how that agreement might impinge upon their religious requirements or obligations of faith, and must therefore act accordingly, thus the Commission dismissed the application, while holding that:

“[E]ven a person at liberty may, in the exercise of his freedom to manifest his religion, have to take into account his particular professional or contractual position.”