The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, which contains the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It was based largely on the English Bill of Rights. The text of the Eighth Amendment forbids:
- Imposing excessive bail to those being held in custody on suspicion of crime;
- Imposing excessive fines to those convicted of crimes; and
- Cruel and Unusual Punishment to those convicted of crimes.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the above-listed items from being done by federal, state and local governments. The Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment applies to state law as well as federal law. The later 14th amendment also stated that the amendments to the federal Constitution apply to the states, as well.
Since the phrases included in the Eighth Amendment are somewhat open to interpretation, the Supreme Court rules as to the meaning of the phrases when the matters come up in Supreme Court cases.
Courts have ruled that this clause means that any bail set should not be excessive. This has been interpreted as meaning the amount necessary to ensure that a defendant appears at their trial. In some cases, courts deny bail to prevent a defendant from attempting to flee, and this has been held to be in accordance with the excessive bail clause. Most states also have their own laws regarding excessive bail and limits on bail.
Fines should be in proportion to the crime. Courts have generally ruled that fines become excessive when they are so high as to create a deprivation of property to the criminal defendant, without allowing them due process on the issue of the deprivation.
The source of the language of the Eighth Amendment, as stated above was the English Bill of Rights. England had long practiced barbaric forms of punishment and execution, including various kinds of torture. Once England had enacted the stricture against cruel and unusual punishment, the newly-formed United States carried the idea over into its own Bill of Rights.
But what is actually considered cruel and unusual? Ruling in Furman v. Georgia, Supreme Court Justice Brennan stated that:
- Punishment must not be “degrading to human dignity.” This would include torture;
- The punishment should not be arbitrary;
- The punishment should not be of a sort that is rejected throughout the country; and
- The punishment should not be one that is clearly not necessary.
Various court cases have rules explicitly regarding certain crimes that cruel and unusual, and certain crimes that are not. This includes certain types of executions, which have not been outlawed by the Constitution in general.
It is generally held that a punishment should be proportionate to the crime. For example, the death penalty should not be given in cases other than murder cases, even in cases of heinous rape.
The Eighth Amendment is clearly related to the sentencing for crimes. Both the excessive fines clause and the cruel and unusual punishment clause have an effect on how convicted criminals may be sentenced.
As stated above, both fines and jail sentences or other penalties should be proportional to the crime committed. Judges may look to previous case law when considering sentences for those convicted in their courts. This is especially true regarding the interpretation of what includes excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment. Generally speaking, criminal punishments that are not proportionate to the crime will likely be overturned on appeal.
Here are some specific types of penalties that have presented issues:
- Death Penalty for Murder: The death penalty is generally only given in cases where the defendant has been convicted of the intentional (not unintentional or reckless) death of another;
- Death Penalty for Kidnapping or Rape: Unless the victim died as a result, rape crimes are not given the death penalty;
- Incompetent Defendant: The death penalty is not given to those who are incompetent because of insanity or other reasons;
- Minors: The death penalty will not be imposed on minors under the age of 18; and
- Excessive Fines: Excessive fines will not be given, as mentioned above.
Criminal sentences that violate the clauses of the Eighth Amendment may be appealed in some cases. Matters of both procedure and law can be appealed by those who feel they were wrongly convicted or sentenced.
Defendants are more likely to have successful appeals if they can prove that law was applied incorrectly, or if there was not sufficient evidence to convict them. A retrial may be possible if the original trial contained more serious errors, such as attorney misconduct or a hung jury.
If you are being charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to work with a criminal lawyer. An attorney can also help you with the specific issue of appealing a criminal sentence that you believe may have been unconstitutional. Your lawyer can assist you in filing for an appeal, and will be able to provide further representation during court hearings.