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.

R v Kennedy (2007)

English Criminal Law

R v Kennedy
‘California Poppies’ by Lynda Reyes

The domestic criminal law principle of ‘free will’ within the confines of substance abuse, is a question that by extension, remains fraught with uncertainty (with particular regard to Class A substances). In this drug related death case, the issue before the court was fundamentally one of autonomy versus conjoined culpability.

When two drug users were engaging in social discourse, the now deceased party asked the appellant to prepare a syringe of heroin, so that he might be able to sleep that evening. After preparing the drug in the manner requested, the appellant left the room, before the deceased self-injected the measured dose. Minutes afterwards, the user was found breathless, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the nearest hospital.

When heard during the original trial, the appellant was convicted of supplying a class A drug under s.4(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and administering the drug under s.23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. These two offences were then tantamount to a charge of manslaughter, and sentence was set at eight years, with five of those under imprisonment. When the defendant appealed, the judges unflinchingly upheld the conviction, and it so was that when the Criminal Cases Review Commission studied the finer details of the case, that it was bought again before the Court of Appeal, where despite strongly presented contentions, it was summarily dismissed and left to the defendant to seek final appeal in the House of Lords. 

With a need for investigation surrounding the notion that administration implied contributory action on the part of the supplier, it was eventually made clear that the pervious judges had become victim to self-misdirection, despite distinguishing case citations presented throughout the appeals. Ultimately the doctrine of novus actus interveniens  was sufficiently present enough for the injecting party to have acted under free will, and an appreciation of the inherent risks associated with heroin abuse; and that while the first offence (which itself carried a prison sentence) remained intact, the charge of manslaughter could not stand, when held against the perhaps better appreciated evidence now on display.