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Eighth Amendment Appeals

Appeals Based on Eighth Amendment Violations

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing "cruel and unusual punishment" upon criminal defendants.

This constitutional protection is a crucial safeguard for individuals sentenced for federal crimes. Suppose you have received a sentence for a federal crime significantly disproportionate to the offense.  In that case, a skilled federal criminal appeals attorney may file an appeal on the grounds of an Eighth Amendment violation.

Appeals Based on Eighth Amendment Violations
The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment.

The Eighth Amendment is often invoked when a sentence is deemed excessively harsh or severe about the offense. The amendment is a barrier against the arbitrary enforcement of cruel penalties and ensures that punishment does not become a tool of vengeance.

Defendants in criminal cases often ask what constitutional protections exist against unfair legal punishments and penalties. Many are located in the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from requiring you to face excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments.

Amendment VIII says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The United States Supreme Court has routinely held that criminal sentences that are inhumane, shock the social conscience, or outrageous are unconstitutional.

The Eight Amendment has significantly impacted how federal judges impose sentences. One of the most cited sections is the cruel and unusual punishment element, which requires criminal sentences to be proportional to the severity of the crime for which a defendant is convicted.

Suppose you were convicted in a federal courtroom and faced with a sentence disproportionate to your offense.  In that case, you might have a strong basis for an appeal.

The Eighth Amendment in Context

Ratified in 1791, along with the other 10 Amendments contained in the Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment explicitly forbids the federal government from imposing excessive bail or fines or delivering cruel and unusual punishments on criminal defendants.

However, the Amendment doesn't detail what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" or how these protections should be implemented.  So, throughout history, these principles have been extensively analyzed, debated, interpreted, and elucidated through many significant court cases.

Thus, most appeals on Eighth Amendment grounds are based on precedent and interpretations of case law. A few examples of Supreme Court cases that have shaped our understanding of the Eighth Amendment include:

  • Furman v. Georgia (1972). This case centered around the inconsistent and random application of the death penalty, leading the Supreme Court to deem such practices unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The ruling resulted in a temporary nationwide halt to death penalty impositions.
  • Gregg v. Georgia (1976). The court determined that the death penalty was not inherently cruel or unusual in this case. Instead, how it was applied could be. The court emphasized the necessity for guided discretion to ensure uniformity and justice.
  • Solem v. Helm (1983). The court found that a defendant's life sentence violated the Eighth Amendment as it was grossly disproportionate to the crime committed. This action effectively barred disproportionate sentences. 
  • Harmelin v. Michigan (1991). This case effectively weakened the effect of Solem v. Helm because the court ruled that a disproportionate sentence was not necessarily an Eighth Amendment violation in extreme cases.
  • Graham v. Florida (2010). The Supreme Court held that for juvenile non-homicide offenders, it's unconstitutional for a court to assign life imprisonment without parole.

What are Some Examples of Sentences May Be Appealed?

A primary contention surrounding the Eighth Amendment is the proportionality principle. This principle mandates that the punishment received should be commensurate with the crime committed.

When the punishment seems overly harsh or extreme relative to the offense, it may provide grounds for an appeal based on Eighth Amendment violations. Some examples include the following:

  • The Death Penalty. Most Eighth Amendment appeals across history concern the wrongful implementation of capital punishment. While many federal crimes allow the death penalty, the vast majority being different types of murder, case law has indicated that this sentence should only be imposed if prosecutors can prove that the defendant intended to kill and was the party who did the killing.
  • Excessive Penalties on Minors. The courts have ruled in previous cases that it is cruel and unusual punishment for defendants under 18 to receive the death penalty or life imprisonment.
  • Excessive Fines. Fines imposed for crimes must be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Fines imposed arbitrarily or without prior consideration and excessive fines that serve more to deprive the defendant of property than to right a wrong may be appealed on Eighth Amendment grounds. 
  • Defendants Declared Mentally Insane. The Eighth Amendment prohibits individuals declared by the court to be legally insane from being sentenced to the death penalty.

How Can You Determine an Eighth Amendment Violation?

Establishing an Eighth Amendment violation requires a nuanced understanding of the critical elements involved. The central question is whether the punishment is disproportionate to the crime.

This determination involves several factors, including the severity of the offense, the offender's criminal history, and the sentencing guidelines.

  • Severity of the Offense: Courts will first assess the gravity of the offense. Minor offenses that result in severe penalties are more likely to be deemed disproportionate.
  • Offender's Criminal History: The defendant's criminal record also plays a significant role. Courts may uphold severe sentences if the defendant has a substantial history of criminal behavior.
  • Sentencing Guidelines: Courts also evaluate whether the sentence aligns with federal sentencing guidelines. A sentence that significantly deviates from these guidelines without sufficient justification may constitute an Eighth Amendment violation.
  • Evolving Standards of Decency: The Supreme Court has acknowledged that interpreting "cruel and unusual" can shift over time, mirroring societal changes. Thus, what may not have been deemed cruel may be seen differently in a contemporary context.

Suppose you or a family member has valid reasons to believe that your constitutional rights were violated during the sentencing phase of a federal criminal trial. In that case, you should consult with our federal appeals attorney to review the case.  Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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