4th Circuit flags possible misreading of Eighth Amendment precedents

An interesting opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit this week all but invites a future challenge to some of that court’s Eighth Amendment case law.

The case involved a teenager sentenced to a fifteen-year mandatory minimum that many people would view as disproportionate to the crime committed. (The trial judge, and probably all the judges on the appeals panel, viewed it this way.) One way of challenging a disproportionate sentence is through the Eighth Amendment, as a violation of the prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The court ultimately did not reach this challenge by the defendant — a different challenge was more clear-cut. The defendant was not given his Miranda rights before being interrogated in a situation which, the court found, was “custodial” — in other words, a situation in which a reasonable person would not feel free to leave. This constitutional violation demanded a new trial without the fruits of this interrogation.

Judge Wilkinson, writing for the court, found it unnecessary to reach the merits of the Eighth Amendment argument, but did make this comment:

[T]his was a case in which both police and prosecution applied a heavy foot to the accelerator. We do not doubt for an instant that the defendant’s conduct here was reprehensible and worthy of both investigation and punishment, as the guilty plea attests. But attention to balance and degree often distinguishes the wise exercise of prosecutorial discretion from its opposite. For now we leave to the reflection of the appropriate authorities whether it was necessary to throw the full force of the law against this 19-year-old in a manner that would very likely render his life beyond repair.

Even more interestingly, Judge King wrote separately to call into question some of the Circuit’s Eighth Amendment cases. And he did so in no uncertain terms, calling the rule in such cases “a misperception of the law in this Court.” (Another persuasive opinion by Judge Gregory had made a similar argument when the full court denied en banc review.) The question is whether Eighth Amendment challenges are available for sentences less than life imprisonment.

It started with a case called Polk, in which the court declined to exercise Eighth Amendment review, noting that it was not required to do so in cases involving sentences less than life. But in later cases, panels of the Fourth Circuit began citing Polk for the proposition that such review was unavailable for sentences less than life.  (Examples: Ming Hong, Lockhart.) This, he argues, is a misunderstanding of what Polk said: not being required to do something is not the same as not being allowed to do it. Other circuits do not follow this rule, and Supreme Court precedent calls it into question.

It would probably require full-court review to change course at this point — but Judge King’s opinion in this case all but invites such a review when an appropriate case arises.

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