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Case Law Interpreting the Eighth Amendment

A court’s discretion in sentencing a defendant is also limited by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the imposition of excessive fines and the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. The Excessive Fines Clause has proven to have little effect over the course of the last two centuries. Trial judges are afforded extremely wide discretion in assessing fines on criminal defendants, and they are rarely overturned on appeal. For a fine to be overturned there must be proof that it was arbitrary, capricious, or so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law. As a practical matter, the cost of appealing a fine often exceeds the amount of the fine itself, thereby reducing the incentive to appeal.

On the other hand, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause has been the subject of much litigation. This clause requires every punishment imposed by the government to be commensurate with the offense committed by the defendant. Punishments that are disproportionately harsh will be overturned on appeal. Examples of punishments that have been overturned on Eighth Amendment grounds include two Georgia statutes that prescribed the death penalty for rape and kidnapping (see Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 97 S. Ct. 2861, 53 L. Ed.2d 982 (1977); Eberheart v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 917, 97 L. Ed.2d 2994, 53 L. Ed. 2d 1104 [1977]). The Supreme Court has also ruled that criminal sentences that are inhumane, outrageous, barbarous, or shock the social consciousness also violate the Eighth Amendment.

In 1972 the U. S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium on capital punishment throughout the United States, declaring that the statutes authorizing the death penalty were too broad and allowed for arbitrary and discriminatory application by judges and juries (see Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 [1972]). But four years later the Supreme Court upheld three new state statutes that were enacted to cure those flaws (see Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 [1976]). Thirty-five states and the federal government soon followed suit by revising their death penalty statutes to comply with the Eighth Amendment, and the nation’s high court has since shown reluctance to closely scrutinize these statutes.

However, in 2001 the Georgia Supreme Court surprised many legal observers when it banned use of the electric chair in executing death row inmates (see Dawson v. State, ― S.E.2d ―, 2001 WL 1180615 [GA.2001]). The court said that death by electrocution violated the state constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it inflicted purposeless violence and needless mutilation on the prisoner, and as such made no measurable contribution to the accepted goals of punishment (see GA Const. Art. 1, ¤ 1, par. 17). At the same time, the court stressed that it was not calling into question Georgia’s entire system of capital punishment. On the contrary, the court said that death by lethal injection raised no constitutional questions because it was minimally intrusive and involved no mutilation.

Inside Case Law Interpreting the Eighth Amendment