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SOLEM v. HELM

decided: June 28, 1983.

SOLEM, WARDEN, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE PENITENTIARY
v.
HELM



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which White, Rehnquist, and O'connor, JJ., joined, post, p. 304.

Author: Powell

[ 463 U.S. Page 279]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented is whether the Eighth Amendment proscribes a life sentence without possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony.

I

By 1975 the State of South Dakota had convicted respondent Jerry Helm of six nonviolent felonies. In 1964, 1966, and 1969 Helm was convicted of third-degree burglary.*fn1 In 1972

[ 463 U.S. Page 280]

     he was convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses.*fn2 In 1973 he was convicted of grand larceny.*fn3 And in 1975 he was convicted of third-offense driving while intoxicated.*fn4 The record contains no details about the circumstances of any of these offenses, except that they were all nonviolent, none was a crime against a person, and alcohol was a contributing factor in each case.

[ 463 U.S. Page 281]

     In 1979 Helm was charged with uttering a "no account" check for $100.*fn5 The only details we have of the crime are those given by Helm to the state trial court:

"'I was working in Sioux Falls, and got my check that day, was drinking and I ended up here in Rapid City with more money than I had when I started. I knew I'd done something I didn't know exactly what. If I would have known this, I would have picked the check up. I was drinking and didn't remember, stopped several places.'" State v. Helm, 287 N. W. 2d 497, 501 (S. D. 1980) (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting Helm).

After offering this explanation, Helm pleaded guilty.

Ordinarily the maximum punishment for uttering a "no account" check would have been five years' imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $5,000 fine. See S. D. Comp. Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(6) (1967 ed., Supp. 1978) (now codified at S. D. Codified Laws § 22-6-1(7) (Supp. 1982)). As a result of his criminal record, however, Helm was subject to South Dakota's recidivist statute:

"When a defendant has been convicted of at least three prior convictions [sic] in addition to the principal felony, the sentence for the principal felony shall be enhanced to the sentence for a Class 1 felony." S. D. Codified Laws § 22-7-8 (1979) (amended 1981).

The maximum penalty for a "Class 1 felony" was life imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $25,000 fine.*fn6 S. D.

[ 463 U.S. Page 282]

     Comp. Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(2) (1967 ed., Supp. 1978) (now codified at S. D. Codified Laws § 22-6-1(3) (Supp. 1982)). Moreover, South Dakota law explicitly provides that parole is unavailable: "A person sentenced to life imprisonment is not eligible for parole by the board of pardons and paroles." S. D. Codified Laws § 24-15-4 (1979). The Governor*fn7 is authorized to pardon prisoners, or to commute their sentences, S. D. Const., Art. IV, § 3, but no other relief from sentence is available even to a rehabilitated prisoner.

Immediately after accepting Helm's guilty plea, the South Dakota Circuit Court sentenced Helm to life imprisonment under § 22-7-8. The court explained:

"'I think you certainly earned this sentence and certainly proven that you're an habitual criminal and the record

[ 463 U.S. Page 283]

     would indicate that you're beyond rehabilitation and that the only prudent thing to do is to lock you up for the rest of your natural life, so you won't have further victims of your crimes, just be coming back before Courts. You'll have plenty of time to think this one over.'" State v. Helm, supra, at 500 (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting South Dakota Circuit Court, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Pennington County (Parker, J.)).

The South Dakota Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, affirmed the sentence despite Helm's argument that it violated the Eighth Amendment. State v. Helm, supra.

After Helm had served two years in the state penitentiary, he requested the Governor to commute his sentence to a fixed term of years. Such a commutation would have had the effect of making Helm eligible to be considered for parole when he had served three-fourths of his new sentence. See S. D. Codified Laws § 24-15-5(3) (1979). The Governor denied Helm's request in May 1981. App. 26.

In November 1981, Helm sought habeas relief in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota. Helm argued, among other things, that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the District Court recognized that the sentence was harsh, it concluded that this Court's recent decision in Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980), was dispositive. It therefore denied the writ.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 684 F.2d 582 (1982). The Court of Appeals noted that Rummel v. Estelle was distinguishable. Helm's sentence of life without parole was qualitatively different from Rummel's life sentence with the prospect of parole because South Dakota has rejected rehabilitation as a goal of

[ 463 U.S. Page 284]

     the criminal justice system. The Court of Appeals examined the nature of Helm's offenses, the nature of his sentence, and the sentence he could have received in other States for the same offense. It concluded, on the basis of this examination, that Helm's sentence was "grossly disproportionate to the nature of the offense." 684 F.2d, at 587. It therefore directed the District Court to issue the writ unless the State resentenced Helm. Ibid.

We granted certiorari to consider the Eighth Amendment question presented by this case. 459 U.S. 986 (1982). We now affirm.

II

The Eighth Amendment declares: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The final clause prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed.

A

The principle that a punishment should be proportionate to the crime is deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common-law jurisprudence. In 1215 three chapters of Magna Carta were devoted to the rule that "amercements"*fn8 may not be excessive.*fn9 And the principle was repeated and extended in the First Statute of Westminster, 3 Edw. I, ch. 6

[ 463 U.S. Page 285]

     (1275). These were not hollow guarantees, for the royal courts relied on them to invalidate disproportionate punishments. See, e. g., Le Gras v. Bailiff of Bishop of Winchester, Y. B. Mich. 10 Edw. II, pl. 4 (C. P. 1316), reprinted in 52 Selden Society 3 (1934). When prison sentences became the normal criminal sanctions, the common law recognized that these, too, must be proportional. See, e. g., Hodges v. Humkin, 2 Bulst. 139, 140, 80 Eng. Rep. 1015, 1016 (K. B. 1615) (Croke, J.) ("imprisonment ought always to be according to the quality of the offence").

The English Bill of Rights repeated the principle of proportionality in language that was later adopted in the Eighth Amendment: "excessive Baile ought not to be required nor excessive Fines imposed nor cruel and unusual Punishments inflicted." 1 Wm. & Mary, sess. 2, ch. 2 (1689). Although the precise scope of this provision is uncertain, it at least incorporated "the longstanding principle of English law that the punishment . . . should not be, by reason of its excessive length or severity, greatly disproportionate to the offense charged." R. Perry, Sources of Our Liberties 236 (1959); see 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *16-*19 (1769) (hereafter Blackstone); see also id., at *16-*17 (in condemning "punishments of unreasonable severity," uses "cruel" to mean severe or excessive). Indeed, barely three months after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the House of Lords declared that a "fine of thirty thousand pounds, imposed by the court of King's Bench upon the earl of Devon was excessive and exorbitant, against magna charta, the common right of the subject, and the law of the land." Earl of Devon's Case, 11 State Tr. 133, 136 (1689).

When the Framers of the Eighth Amendment adopted the language of the English Bill of Rights,*fn10 they also adopted the

[ 463 U.S. Page 286]

     English principle of proportionality. Indeed, one of the consistent themes of the era was that Americans had all the rights of English subjects. See, e. g., 1 J. Continental Cong. 83 (W. Ford ed. 1904) (Address to the People of Great Britain, Sept. 5, 1774) ("we claim all the benefits secured to the subject by the English constitution"); 1 American Archives 700 (4th series 1837) (Georgia Resolutions, Aug. 10, 1774) ("his Majesty's subjects in America. . . are entitled to the same rights, privileges, and immunities with their fellow-subjects in Great Britain"). Thus our Bill of Rights was designed in part to ensure that these rights were preserved. Although the Framers may have intended the Eighth Amendment to go beyond the scope of its English counterpart, their use of the language of the English Bill of Rights is convincing proof that they intended to provide at least the same protection -- including the right to be free from excessive punishments.

B

The constitutional principle of proportionality has been recognized explicitly in this Court for almost a century.*fn11 In the

[ 463 U.S. Page 287]

     leading case of Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), the defendant had been convicted of falsifying a public document and sentenced to 15 years of " cadena temporal," a form of imprisonment that included hard labor in chains and permanent civil disabilities. The Court noted that "it is a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to offense," id., at 367, and held that the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court endorsed the principle of proportionality as a constitutional standard, see, e. g., id., at 372-373, and determined that the sentence before it was "cruel in its excess of imprisonment," id., at 377, as well as in its shackles and restrictions.

The Court next applied the principle to invalidate a criminal sentence in Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962).*fn12 A 90-day sentence was found to be excessive for the crime of being "addicted to the use of narcotics." The Court explained that "imprisonment for ninety days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual." Id., at 667. Thus there was no question of an inherently barbaric punishment. "But the question cannot be considered in the abstract. Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold." Ibid.

[ 463 U.S. Page 288]

     Most recently, the Court has applied the principle of proportionality to hold capital punishment excessive in certain circumstances. Edmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982) (death penalty excessive for felony murder when defendant did not take life, attempt to take life, or intend that a life be taken or that lethal force be used); Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 592 (1977) (plurality opinion) ("sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape"); id., at 601 (POWELL, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part) ("ordinarily death is disproportionate punishment for the crime of raping an adult woman"). And the Court has continued to recognize that the Eighth Amendment proscribes grossly disproportionate punishments, even when it has not been necessary to rely on the proscription. See, e. g., Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 685 (1978); Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 667 (1977); Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 171-172 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.); cf. Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370, 374, and n. 3 (1982) (per curiam) (recognizing that some prison sentences may be constitutionally disproportionate); Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S., at 274, n. 11 (same).*fn13

C

There is no basis for the State's assertion that the general principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences.*fn14 The constitutional language itself suggests no

[ 463 U.S. Page 289]

     exception for imprisonment. We have recognized that the Eighth Amendment imposes "parallel limitations" on bail, fines, and other punishments, Ingraham v. Wright, supra, at 664, and the text is explicit that bail and fines may not be excessive. It would be anomalous indeed if the lesser punishment of a fine and the greater punishment of death were both subject to proportionality analysis, but the intermediate punishment of imprisonment were not. There is also no historical support for such an exception. The common-law principle incorporated into the Eighth Amendment clearly applied to prison terms. See Hodges v. Humkin, 2 Bulst. 139, 80 Eng. Rep. 1015 (K. B. 1615). And our prior cases have recognized explicitly that prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis. See, e. g., Weems, supra, at 377; cf. Hutto v. Finney, supra, at 685 ("Confinement in a prison . . . is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards").

When we have applied the proportionality principle in capital cases, we have drawn no distinction with cases of imprisonment. See Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 176 (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.). It is true that the "penalty of death differs from all other forms of criminal punishment, not in degree but in kind." Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 306 (1972) (Stewart, J., concurring). As a result, "our decisions [in] capital cases are of limited assistance in deciding the constitutionality of the punishment" in a non-capital case. Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S., at 272. We agree, therefore, that, "[outside] the context of capital punishment, successful challenges to the proportionality of particular

[ 463 U.S. Page 290]

     sentences [will be] exceedingly rare,"*fn15 ibid. (emphasis added); see Hutto v. Davis, supra, at 374. This does not mean, however, that proportionality analysis is entirely inapplicable in non-capital cases.

In sum, we hold as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Reviewing courts, of course, should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishments for crimes, as well as to the discretion that trial courts possess in sentencing convicted criminals.*fn16 But no penalty is per se constitutional. As the Court noted in Robinson v. California, 370 U.S., at 667, a single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.

III

A

When sentences are reviewed under the Eighth Amendment, courts should be guided by objective factors that our cases have recognized.*fn17 ...


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