Harmelin v. Michigan

LOCATION: Harmelin’s Car

DOCKET NO.: 89-7272
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 501 US 957 (1991)
ARGUED: Nov 05, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1991

Carla J. Johnson – By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the petitioner
Richard Thompson – Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Following his conviction under Michigan law for possession of over 650 grams of cocaine, Ronald Harmelin was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Harmelin challenged his sentence as cruel and unusual, claiming it was disproportionate to the crime he committed and was statutorily mandated without consideration for the fact that he had no prior felony convictions. On appeal from an affirmance by the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Is a statutorily mandated sentence that does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishments?

Media for Harmelin v. Michigan

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 05, 1990 in Harmelin v. Michigan

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 27, 1991 in Harmelin v. Michigan

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 89-7272, Harmelin against Michigan will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on petition for writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Michigan.

Petitioner, Harmelin, was convicted under Michigan law of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

He was sentenced to the mandatory penalty that Michigan provides for that offense, which is life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

The State Court of Appeals affirmed that conviction rejecting Harmelin’s argument that the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

We affirm that judgment.

Part 5 of my opinion, which is joined by the Chief Justice and Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, rejects the claim that a mandatory sentence is always cruel and unusual because it prevents the sentencer from taking into account the particular circumstances of the crime and of the criminal.

That claim has no support in the text of the Eighth Amendment.

Mandatory sentences may or may not be cruel but they are certainly not unusual having been common when the Eighth Amendment was adapted and having remained common since then.

In a case called Woodson versus North Carolina, we held that mandatory death penalties violate the Eight Amendment, but we regard that case as part of our distinctive death penalty jurisprudence which is not extendable to other penalties.

Parts 1 to 4 of my opinion, joined by the Chief Justice, reject the claim, that the sentence here violated the Eighth Amendment because it was significantly disproportionate to the crime.

In our view, the cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment are those which are in their nature, and not just in relation to the offense, both contrary to the custom and cruel such as maiming, disemboweling, and other cruel practices that have existed in other times and places.

But if the punishment is not inherently of this nature, if it is the sort of punishment that our society has traditionally accepted, it maybe very undesirable with respect to a particular crime that is a matter for legislatures to decide, but it does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

There is abundant evidence that the Eighth Amendment does not contain a proportionality principle.

The English Declaration of Rights of 1689 on which it was patterned, did not do so, some States’ Bill of Rights both before and after the Federal Bill of Rights was drafted and adapted specifically included a proportionality requirement in addition to a cruel and unusual prohibition.

The Federal Bill of Rights of course did not.

The first federal criminal laws adapted by the very first Congress that drafted and proposed the Eighth Amendment, contained some penalties that could surely be considered disproportionate.

For example, the death penalty for forging a federal note, whereas, maiming another human being was punished with only seven years imprisonment.

Throughout the 19th century, neither the Eighth Amendment nor any of the similar state provisions was held to require proportionality and that proposition was often rejected by the courts.

Not until the 1960s did the lower federal courts begin to impose such a requirement through the Eighth Amendment.

This Court approved a proportionality requirement in capital cases in 1977 as part of our death penalty jurisprudence.

We extended it to prison sentences in 1983 in a case called Solem versus Helm.

Besides the fact that a proportionality principle is historically untrue, it does not lend itself to the application of objective standards.

As widely varying views over time, and indeed on this Court today, may clear.

Solem versus Helm was, in our view, wrongly decided and should be overruled.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices O’Connor and Souter join; Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Blackmun join; Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackmun joins.