Man caught with 672 grams of cocaine claims life in prison without parole sentence is "cruel and unusual" punishment


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (drugs), Eighth Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a mandatory term of life in prison without parole violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment if it does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors? 


A. Background:

Petitioner Ronald Harmelin was convicted under Michigan law of possessing over 650 grams of cocaine.  (He was caught with 672 grams.) He was sentenced to a statutorily required term of life in prison without possibility of parole.  Petitioner challenged the sentence, arguing it was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, on the grounds that it was disproportionate to the crime he committed and because the judge was statutorily required to impose the punishment without consideration of any mitigating factors.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Carla J. Johnson, by appointment of the Court, argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner. Richard Thompson argued the cause for respondent.  With him on the brief was Michael J. Modelski.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Steven R. Shapiro filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al., as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

Neil N. Fink, Elizabeth L. Jacobs, and William Swor filed a brief for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan et al., as amici curiae, urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the United States by Solicitor General Starr, Acting Assistant Attorney General Mueller, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and James A. Feldman; for the State of Arizona by Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General, Jessica Gifford Funkhouser, and Vicki Gotkin Adler, Assistant Attorney General; for the State of Michigan by Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General, Gay Secor Hardy, Solicitor General, and K. Davison Hunter and Thomas C. Nelson, Assistant Attorneys General; for the National District Attorneys Association by Richard P. Ieyoub, Jack E. Yelverton, and James P. Manak; for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan by Robert Weiss, John D. O'Hair, and Timothy A. Baughman; and for the Washington Legal Foundation et al. by Daniel J. Popeo and Paul D. Kamenar.

"We think it enough that those who framed and approved the Federal Constitution chose, for whatever reason, not to include within it the guarantee against disproportionate sentences that some State Constitutions contained.  It is worth noting, however, that there was good reason for that choice...  While there are relatively clear historical guidelines and accepted practices that enable judges to determine which modes of punishment are 'cruel and unusual,' proportionality does not lend itself to such analysis.  Neither Congress nor any state legislature has ever set out with the objective of crafting a penalty that is 'disproportionate'; yet as some of the examples mentioned above indicate, many enacted dispositions seem to be so - because they were made for other times or other places, with different social attitudes, different criminal epidemics, different public fears, and different prevailing theories of penology...

Though the different needs and concerns of other States may induce them to treat simple possession of 672 grams of cocaine as a relatively minor offense, nothing in the Constitution requires Michigan to follow suit. The Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet, whereby a temporary consensus on leniency for a particular crime fixes a permanent constitutional maximum, disabling the States from giving effect to altered beliefs and responding to changed social conditions...

Petitioner claims that his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment for a reason in addition to its alleged disproportionality.  He argues that it is 'cruel and unusual' to impose a mandatory sentence of such severity, without any consideration of so-called mitigating factors such as, in his case, the fact that he had no prior felony convictions.  He apparently contends that the Eighth Amendment requires Michigan to create a sentencing scheme whereby life in prison without possibility of parole is simply the most severe of a range of available penalties that the sentencer may impose after hearing evidence in mitigation and aggravation. 

 As our earlier discussion should make clear, this claim has no support in the text and history of the Eighth Amendment. Severe, mandatory penalties may be cruel, but they are not unusual in the constitutional sense, having been employed in various forms throughout our Nation's history...

It is true that petitioner's sentence is unique in that it is the second most severe known to the law; but life imprisonment with possibility of parole is also unique in that it is the third most severe.  And if petitioner's sentence forecloses some 'flexible techniques' for later reducing his sentence, it does not foreclose all of them, since there remain the possibilities of retroactive legislative reduction and executive clemency... But even where the difference is the greatest, it cannot be compared with death. We have drawn the line of required individualized sentencing at capital cases, and see no basis for extending it further. The judgment of the Michigan Court of Appeals is affirmed."

 Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion, wrote opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion, joined Kennedy's opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined Kennedy's opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined White's opinion, joined Stevens' opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined White's opinion, wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals of Michigan in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.