8th Amendment Court Cases

Supreme Court

Each of the following 8th Amendment Court Cases is an important case in the Supreme Court's history of rulings regarding the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Each case sets an important precedent or establishes important guidelines for what the amendment actually means. The 8th Amendment prohibits excessive fines, excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

The 8th Amendment reads like this:

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

8th Amendment Court Cases
Excessive Bail Clause

United States v. Salerno - 8th Amendment Court Cases

The Excessive Bail Clause prohibits judges from requiring excessively high amounts of bail for an accused person to get out of jail before their trial. One question that the 8th Amendment leaves open, however, is whether or not the amendment requires that all defendants be given the opportunity to post bail, or if there are some instances, such as when a person might constitute a threat to the community if released, when the judge can refuse to give someone the opportunity to post bail and get out of jail.

In United States v. Salerno, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the "Bail Reform Act of 1984" did not violate the 8th Amendment's Excessive Bail Clause, nor did it violate the Due Process Clause in the 5th Amendment. The Bail Reform Act gave the federal court permission to hold people before their trial if they could prove the person was too dangerous to allow loose in the community.

In this case, Anthony Salerno, a member of the mafia was arrested for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, otherwise known as the RICO Act. The government detained him after he was arrested and did not allow him to post bail on the grounds that he was a danger to the community.

Salerno challenged the government, alleging that his detention before trial violated his 8th Amendment right to post bail. The Court disagreed and made a very clear statement that the Excessive Bail Clause does not promise the right to bail in every case and that the only limitation imposed by the 8th Amendment on bail is that "the government's proposed conditions of release or detention not be 'excessive' in light of the perceived evil."

8th Amendment Court Cases
Excessive Fines Clause

Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas - 8th Amendment Court Cases

In one important 8th Amendment court case, the Waters-Pierce Oil Co. was charged with violating Texas' anti-trust law. The fine imposed was $5,000 a day for every day the alleged breaking of the law occurred. Waters-Pierce was accused of violating the anti-trust law for over 300 days, making the fine over $1.6 million dollars.

In Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, 1909, Waters-Pierce alleged in their counter suit that the large fine violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the 8th Amendment. The Court disagreed, stating that the Court:

"...cannot interfere with state legislation in fixing fines, or judicial action in imposing them, unless so grossly excessive as to amount to deprivation of property without due process of law... this Court will not hold that the fine is so excessive as to amount to deprivation of property without due process of law where it appears that the business was extensive and profitable during the period of violation, and that the corporation has over $40,000,000 of assets and has declared dividends amounting to several hundred percent."

What makes this case important is that it sets up a standard for judging whether or not a fine is "excessive." The standard set up here is that a fine must not be "so grossly excessive as to amount to deprivation of property without due process of law." In other words, the government must not be able to confiscate such a large amount of property without following an established set of rules created by the legislature.

United States v. Bajakajian - 8th Amendment Court Cases

The United States Supreme Court has overturned only one fine as excessive based on the Excessive Fines Clause in its 200+ years and that did not happen until 1998.

In 1994, Hosep Krikor Bajakajian attempted to leave the United States to go to Cyprus with $357,144 in cash to pay a debt. Leaving the country with a large amount of cash is not illegal, but if the amount is more than $10,000 it must be reported to the authorities. Bajakajian did not report the amount, so he was in violation of the law. When he was tried, the government ordered that he must forfeit the entire $357,144 because the United States Code, 18 U.S.C. § 982(a)(1) said:

"The court, in imposing sentence on a person convicted of an offense in violation of [the aforementioned] section... shall order that the person forfeit to the United States any property, real or personal, involved in such offense, or any property traceable to such property."

The law was clear that the full amount should be confiscated. However, the question at hand was whether or not it violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the 8th Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:

"Comparing the gravity of respondent's crime with the $357,144 forfeiture the Government seeks, we conclude that such a forfeiture would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense. It is larger than the $5,000 fine imposed by the District Court by many orders of magnitude, and it bears no articulable correlation to any injury suffered by the Government... For the foregoing reasons, the full forfeiture of respondent's currency would violate the Excessive Fines Clause."

8th Amendment Court Cases
Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause

Wilkerson v. Utah - 8th Amendment Court Cases

In an important 8th Amendment court case from 1879, called Wilkerson v. Utah, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah that death by firing squad did not violate the 8th Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. The Court did mention that some forms of punishment, such as drawing and quartering, public dissecting, burning alive, or disembowelling, would violate the clause.

Weems v. United States - 8th Amendment Court Cases

Weems v. United States, 1910, marked the first time the United States Supreme Court reversed a lower court's decision that a punishment was indeed "cruel and unusual."

Paul Weems was an officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation in the Philippines, which was then a US colony. Weems was convicted of falsifying a document with the intent of defrauding the government. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with certain conditions to the confinement. He was to be shackled from wrist to ankle and forced to work at "hard labor" for the duration. Weems challenged the punishment as a violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.

The Supreme Court agreed. In its opinion, the Court said that such a serious punishment for such a minor crime was cruel and unusual and in violation of the 8th Amendment. This case is important because it is often viewed as having established a "principle of proportionality" when punishments are handed down. In other words, the punishment must be in proportion to the seriousness of the crime.

It should be noted that some people disagree with this principle, believing that it restricts lawfully elected legislators from determining what appropriate punishments for a crime should be, instead giving this power to unelected judges.

The creation of the "principle of proportionality" made this one of the most important 8th Amendment court cases.

Trop v. Dulles - 8th Amendment Court Cases

Trop v. Dulles, 1958, was one of the most important 8th Amendment court cases because it set a precedent for how the Court would determine which crimes were cruel and unusual and which ones were not.

The circumstances of the Trop case were that Albert Trop, who was a US citizen, had deserted the Army while serving in Morocco in 1944. Several years later he tried to get a US passport, but was denied based on the Nationality Act of 1940, which said that if a person deserted the US Armed Services, he would lose his citizenship. Since he was no longer a citizen of the United States, he could not be issued a passport.

Trop filed suit. The district court and the Appeals Court for the Second Circuit agreed that Trop was no longer a citizen. The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision, however, saying that the removal of someone's citizenship was a violation of the 8th Amendment because it amounted to "the total destruction of the individual's status in organized society," meaning this was taking away all of the person's rights. Taking away all of a person's rights, the Court judged, was cruel and unusual.

What was most important regarding this ruling, however, was the statement of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the majority opinion. In explaining their examination of whether or not removing someone's citizenship was "cruel and unusual punishment," Justice Warren stated that:

"The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

In other words, he was saying that what was once considered an acceptable punishment by society may not be acceptable any more. In colonial America, for example, branding and cutting off the perpetrator's ear were considered to be acceptable forms of punishment, but today these are considered reprehensible. Likewise, other forms of punishment such as burning at the stake or crucifixion were acceptable in certain societies at one time.

What is acceptable to society can change from generation to generation. According to the Court, society's current standards should be considered when considering what is "cruel and unusual." This principle has come to be known as the "evolving standards of decency" principle. This standard was taken into consideration for later moves of the Court such as banning the execution of mentally retarded people and juveniles.

Chief Justice Earl Warren
Chief Justice Earl Warren

It should be noted that many people reject the idea of using "evolving standards of decency" in interpreting the 8th Amendment, including many Supreme Court justices. Many believe that since the 8th Amendment does not mention any such "evolving standard," it should be considered in its historical context only, that is, that what was considered to be "cruel and unusual" at the time of its writing is what the Founders were referring to. Only those punishments considered cruel and unusual at the founding period are what is meant to be banned by the 8th Amendment.

Those on this side of the argument also believe the meaning of the word "unusual" is very clear - punishments that have not been in use for a long time should be avoided, not punishments that have commonly been in use, but are no longer acceptable.

Those against the "evolving standards of decency" argument also feel that the use of this standard takes away the power from state legislatures to determine what are and what are not appropriate punishments in their states. This, they argue, takes away legislative power and puts the power into the hands of the judiciary.

Another argument in favor of this position is that if a punishment has truly gone out of favor with the public, the legislatures most likely will reflect that change by amending the law. For example, death by hanging has never been banned by the Supreme Court, but the process has been largely abandoned by the states in favor of lethal injection, which is viewed as more humane. Indeed, only 3 people have been hanged in the United States since 1976, so the changing public opinion was reflected by legislative decision and not by Supreme Court mandate.

Robinson v. California - 8th Amendment Court Cases

In Robinson v. California, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that a California law making it a misdemeanor to "be addicted to the use of narcotics" was unconstitutional. Robinson was taken into custody and charged after a police officer noticed what he thought were injection marks on Robinson's arm. The officer also alleged that Robinson confessed to having used drugs and to being an addict, facts which Robinson denied he ever said.

Robinson was sentenced to 90 days in jail for being an addict. The Supreme Court, however, said that such a punishment for what was "apparently an illness" violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the 8th Amendment. California was essentially punishing people for a state of being, that being having an illness, rather than for a specific act. Using an analogy, the Court wrote that even though a 90 day punishment in and of itself was not cruel or unusual, "even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold."

The Court also noted that someone could violate this law without ever having used drugs in the state of California. In other words, having "the state of being" of an addict should not make one eligible for punishment, but instead, an actual act must occur.

In 1968, in a case called Powell v. Texas, this case was used to challenge a Texas law against public intoxication.

Powell v. Texas - 8th Amendment Court Cases

In Powell v. Texas, 1968, Powell was convicted of public intoxication, violating Texas law. Powell alleged that this violated the 8th Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. He argued that since the Court had ruled against criminalizing the state of addiction in Robinson v. California, his punishment should be overturned, as Texas was criminalizing his addiction to alcohol.

The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that Powell "was convicted, not for being a chronic alcoholic, but for being in public while drunk on a particular occasion." In other words, Powell had committed a certain act against the law and this was punishable. Robinson, in the previous case, merely had a condition and had not committed an act. So in order for a court to legally punish someone and avoid violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, they must have committed an act against the law and not merely been in a state of being or have a condition.

Furman v. Georgia - 8th Amendment Court Cases

Furman v. Georgia, 1972, was a landmark 8th Amendment court case that seriously changed the way the death penalty was enforced in the United States. It was the lead case in a series of cases regarding capital punishment. For two centuries capital punishment was considered valid and just and this was the first time the Court made a decision that had serious ramifications regarding its continued use.

William Furman, a black man, was convicted of killing a man while attempting to rob the man's house. He was given the death penalty for his crime. Furman appealed the sentence and the Supreme Court agreed that the death penalty violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

The justices in the majority were in agreement that the punishment violated the 8th Amendment, but they did not agree in their reasoning. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, wrote that:

"Of all the people convicted of rapes and murders in 1967 and 1968, many just as reprehensible as these, the petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed. My concurring Brothers have demonstrated that, if any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to death, it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race. But racial discrimination has not been proved, and I put it to one side. I simply conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."

Justice Potter Stewart
Click to enlarge
Justice Potter Stewart

Justice Stewart was saying that the death penalty was being handed out wantonly, arbitrarily and capriciously, without any set of standards governing when the punishment should be given. In the case of Furman, Stewart believed that he may have been given the death penalty solely because he was a black man.

Consequently the Court gave two guidelines which must be followed in order to satisfy the 8th Amendment's proscription of Cruel and Unusual Punishment. The Court stated that the death penalty could only satisfy the 8th Amendment if the following conditions were met:

  1. The scheme must provide objective criteria to direct and limit the death sentencing discretion. The objectiveness of these criteria must in turn be ensured by appellate review of all death sentences.
  2. Second, the scheme must allow the sentencer (whether judge or jury) to take into account the character and record of an individual defendant.

In response, the states that then allowed capital punishment had to stop the procedure and rewrite the laws. Many opponents of the death penalty had hoped the Furman case would be the end of capital punishment altogether. They were very surprised and angered when the states began to rewrite their laws in an attempt to satisfy the Court.

In a 1976 case called Gregg v. Georgia, the concerns of the Court were adequately addressed by what is known as a "bifurcated" trial. The states had broken down their death penalty procedures into a "bifurcated" set of events, conducting trials and sentencing separately and using many written standards for the process, in accordance with the Court's guidelines set out in Furman. As a result, the death penalty was reinstituted, albeit with many more restrictions.

Gregg v. Georgia - 8th Amendment Court Cases

The Supreme Court had essentially barred the death penalty with its 1972 8th Amendment court case, Furman v. Georgia. In Gregg v. Georgia, 1976, the Court reaffirmed the death penalty, agreeing that the guidelines they had established in Furman had been met. Indeed, 35 states and the federal government rewrote their laws with much stricter guidelines and procedures for how the death penalty would be implemented, thus providing a very strong indication that society considered the death penalty to be an acceptable form of punishment.

Georgia had instituted a "bifurcated trial" system, meaning the trial was separated from the sentencing. First, guilt or innocence was determined without considering the sentence. Second, the sentence was imposed based on written "aggravating" factors and consideration of "mitigating" factors.

Since the Court required specific rules regarding when the death penalty could be applied, Georgia made a list of "aggravating" factors. If any of the aggravating factors existed in the crime, the person was eligible for the death penalty. Aggravating factors are factors in the commission of a crime that make it more serious than other crimes. For example, using a gun in a crime is usually an aggravating factor because using a gun is considered more serious than not using a gun. Other aggravating factors often include such things as did the defendant have any previous felony charges, did he commit the crime while committing another felony, does he provide a grave risk to society or was the crime particularly outrageous, vile or inhuman. In the Gregg case, the Court found that several aggravating factors did exist, thus making him eligible for the death penalty.

Secondly, the jury was allowed to consider "mitigating" factors. Mitigating factors are factors specific to the case at hand that may call for a different judgment than would normally be considered for a similar case. For instance, if a person is mentally retarded or insane when they commit the crime, most people do not think such a person should be punished in the same way a person of normal intelligence would be punished. Other mitigating factors in crime include such things as the defendant's age at the time of the crime, the defendant's motive (was it done intentionally or was it an accident) and whether or not the person was being coerced or was under extreme pressure at the time of the crime.

The Georgia law stated that once the defendant was found to be eligible for the death penalty as a result of the presence of at least one aggravating factor, the jury must then consider any mitigating factors. If they believed that there were mitigating circumstances, they could reduce the sentence to life without parole. If there were no mitigating circumstances, they could give the death penalty.

After Furman, the states that allowed the death penalty all rewrote their laws in line with this system. First, a bifurcated trial was used, in which the finding of guilt or innocence was separated from the sentencing. Second, the eligibility of the defendant was determined by written aggravating factors determined by the legislature. Third, the jury could look at mitigating factors that might reduce the sentence to life in prison. This decision gave the jury some discretion in considering the individual circumstances of the case. This procedure avoided the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty the Supreme Court was so concerned about and the death penalty continued to be used in the United States in accordance with the new procedures.

Coker v. Georgia - 8th Amendment Court Cases

Coker v. Georgia, 1977, made it illegal to execute someone for the crime of rape. The decision effectively made it illegal to execute someone for any other crime less serious than murder. Erlich Anthony Coker was serving multiple sentences for kidnapping, rape, aggravated assault and one count of first degree murder when he escaped, only to commit another rape and armed robbery.

Coker was given the death penalty for this rape, which decision was appealed to the Supreme Court. In its decision, the Court agreed that Coker should not be executed. The Court invoked the "evolving standards of decency" reasoning mentioned above in Trop v. Dulles, 1958, arguing that Georgia was the sole state left that allowed the death penalty for rape. All other states had banned it by this time. This made it clear to the Court that society's opinion about the justice of execution in the case of rape had changed.

The Court also invoked the "principle of proportionality," from the aforementioned Weems v. United States, 1910, stating that, while rape was a very serious crime, it did not rise to the level of taking someone's life, therefore, taking the life of the perpetrator was out of proportion to the crime.

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 2008, the standard that execution could only be done legally in the case of murder was challenged once again. In this 8th Amendment court case, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law that sentenced child rapists to execution. The Louisiana court held that this was consistent with Coker v. Georgia and that the mitigating factor of the age of the victim is what made the difference.

The United States Supreme Court disagreed. Only five states had similar such laws allowing for the execution of child rapists, thus not constituting a national consensus on the issue. Only one person had been executed for rape in the United States since 1964. The Court made it clear that execution was not an acceptable punishment under the 8th Amendment under any circumstances except for murder. The only other type of crime for which the death penalty is allowed besides murder, is crimes against the state - things such as treason and spying against the country.

Atkins v. Virginia - 8th Amendment Court Cases

In Atkins v. Virginia, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the 8th Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause to execute someone who is mentally retarded. The decision reversed a previous Court decision in Penry v. Lynaugh, 1989 that did allow execution of mentally retarded individuals.

United States Supreme Court

Daryl Atkins was convicted of the August 16, 1996 killing of Airman Eric Nesbitt, a soldier from nearby Langley Airforce Base. Atkins and an accomplice had forced Nesbitt to give them money from an ATM and then shot him. Atkins was sentenced to death, in spite of the fact that it came out he only had an IQ of 59 during the trial. The decision was appealed, arguing that it was a violation of the 8th Amendment to execute a mentally retarded person.

The Supreme Court reversed its previous decisions allowing the execution of mentally retarded people based on a perceived shift of public opinion, again using the "evolving standards of decency" argument. The Court came to the conclusion that the public had shifted its opinion because a majority of states that allowed the death penalty had also banned executing the retarded.

In addition, the Court made a lengthy discussion of the fact that mentally retarded persons were not fully able to understand their actions and the ramifications of their actions on others. Because the mentally retarded defendant was not able to understand why he was being killed, reasoned the Court, it was cruel and unusual to execute him. Executing a mentally retarded person also failed to provide a deterrent to other mentally retarded persons who might consider committing a crime because they couldn't understand why the other mentally retarded person was being executed anyway.

In their dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist strongly criticized the ruling, saying that there was no national consensus, nor did they believe that the 8th Amendment allowed using such criteria for judging what was "cruel and unusual." Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the minority:

"seldom has an opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members."

Roper v. Simmons - 8th Amendment Court Cases

At the age of 17, Christopher Simmons was charged with murder for breaking into a woman's home, tying her up and throwing her off a bridge in Missouri. He received the death penalty for the crime. Later, based on Atkins v. Virginia, 2002, which reversed the death penalty for retarded persons due to "evolving standards of decency," a Missouri court repealed Simmons' sentence and lessened it to life without the possibility of parole.

The State of Missouri appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. The appeal stated that it was cruel and unusual, and therefore a violation of the 8th Amendment, to execute someone whose crime had been committed before they were 18.

In Roper v. Simmons, 2005, the Supreme Court made one of its most important 8th Amendment court case rulings, agreeing with Simmons and the death penalty was overturned. The Court reversed itself from a previous ruling in Standford v. Kentucky, 1989, in which it had allowed the death penalty for minors who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crime. The Court stated that a national consensus against executing minors was developing in the United States, due to the fact that 18 of the 38 states that allowed the death penalty had already made it against the law to execute minors. The minority dissented that 18 states hardly made a "national consensus."

Graham v. Florida - 8th Amendment Court Cases

Terrance Jamar Graham was charged as an adult for armed burglary with assault and battery in Florida. He was 17 at the time of the crime. He received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida, 2010, that a life sentence without possibility of parole violated the 8th Amendment if the defendant was a minor. The Court believed that minors should be held to a different standard than adults and that since minors have less self-control, are less responsible and are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions as an adult would be, they should be given the opportunity to rehabilitate and reenter society. The Court stated that life without possibility of parole for a minor was justified only in the case of murder.

Books abot the Death Penalty

Learn more about these Amendments:

Learn about the Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.

Read the Bill of Rights here.

Learn more about the Bill of Rights with the following article:

Last updated 8/7/12

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