Solem v. Helm

LOCATION:U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 82-492
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 463 US 277 (1983)
ARGUED: Mar 29, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 28, 1983

John J. Burnett – By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the respondent
Mark V. Meierhenry – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Helm was convicted of writing a check from a fictitious account, a crime carrying with it a five-year jail sentence. However, since this was his seventh felony conviction in South Dakota since 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under a state recidivist statute.


Did the sentence violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for Solem v. Helm

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 29, 1983 in Solem v. Helm

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 28, 1983 in Solem v. Helm

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the court in Solem against Helm will be announced by Justice Powell.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This case is hereon certiorari to the Court Of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Under South Dakota’s Habitual Offender Law, respondent Helm was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

This sentence was occasioned by his issuing a $100 check without an account.

This is a felony in South Dakota and was Helm’s seventh offense. Over a period of 15 years, all classified as felonies under state law.

The other six offenses also were nonviolent.

They included third-degree burglaries obtaining money under false pretenses, a larceny as defined by the State and drunk driving.

Respondent was 36-year-old at the time of his sentencing.

He was not a professional criminal.

He is addicted to alcohol with consequent difficulty in obtaining employment and retaining it.

After exhausting state remedies, Helm sought habeas corpus relief in federal court contending that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed and granted the writ.

Now, prior cases established that the Eighth Amendment prohibits disproportionate sentences, as well as punishment that is inherently barbaric.

In determining disproportionality, we examine a number of objective factors.

These factors are set forth in the opinion we file today.

On the basis of these factors, we find that respondent’s sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole is grossly disproportionate to his crimes.

Accordingly, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

Our opinion makes clear however that invalidating an imprisonment sentence imposed under state law is action reserved only for the most exceptional cases.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices White, Rehnquist and O’Connor joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Justice Powell.