Solem v. Helm

Facts of the Case

In 1979, respondent Jerry Helm was convicted in a South Dakota state court of uttering a no account check for $ 100. Ordinarily, the maximum punishment for that crime would have been five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Respondent, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole under South Dakota’s recidivist statute because of his six prior felony convictions — three convictions for third-degree burglary and convictions for obtaining money under false pretenses, grand larceny, and third-offense driving while intoxicated. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. After respondent’s request for commutation was denied, he sought habeas relief in Federal District Court, contending that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed.


Did the sentence violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?


Yes. Since all of Helm’s prior offenses, including his current check-writing conviction, had been relatively minor and were not crimes against people, Justice Powell held that Helm had received the penultimate sentence (South Dakota did not have the death penalty) for relatively minor criminal conduct. Powell concluded that Helm was treated more harshly than the state’s most violent criminals.

Case Information

  • Citation: 463 US 277 (1983)
  • Argued: Mar 29, 1983
  • Decided Jun 28, 1983