445 U.S. 263 (1980), 78-6386, Rummel v. Estelle

Docket Nº:No. 78-6386
Citation:445 U.S. 263, 100 S.Ct. 1133, 63 L.Ed.2d 382
Party Name:Rummel v. Estelle
Case Date:March 18, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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445 U.S. 263 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1133, 63 L.Ed.2d 382

Rummel

v.

Estelle

No. 78-6386

United States Supreme Court

March 18, 1980

Argued January 7, 1980

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner, who previously on two separate occasions had been convicted in Texas state courts and sentenced to prison for felonies (fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods or services, and passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36), was convicted of a third felony, obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses, and received a mandatory life sentence pursuant [100 S.Ct. 1134] to Texas' recidivist statute. After the Texas appellate courts had rejected his direct appeal as well as his subsequent collateral attacks on his imprisonment, petitioner sought a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court, claiming that his life sentence was so disproportionate to the crimes he had committed as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court rejected this claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, attaching particular importance to the probability that petitioner would be eligible for parole within 12 years of his initial confinement.

Held: The mandatory life sentence imposed upon petitioner does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 268-285.

(a) Texas' interest here is not simply that of making criminal the unlawful acquisition of another person's property, but is, in addition, the interest, expressed in all recidivist statutes, in dealing in a harsher manner with those who by repeated criminal acts have shown that they are incapable of conforming to the norms of society as established by its criminal law. The Texas recidivist statute thus is nothing more than a societal decision that, when a person, such as petitioner, commits yet another felony, he should be subjected to the serious penalty of life imprisonment, subject only to the State's judgment as to whether to grant him parole. Pp. 276-278.

(b) While petitioner's inability to enforce any "right" to parole precludes treating his life sentence as equivalent to a 12 years' sentence, nevertheless, because parole is an established variation on imprisonment, a proper assessment of Texas' treatment of petitioner could not ignore the possibility that he will not actually be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Pp. 280-281.

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(c) Texas is entitled to make its own judgment as to the line dividing felony theft from petty larceny, subject only to those strictures of the Eighth Amendment that can be informed by objective factors. Moreover, given petitioner's record, Texas was not require to treat him in the same manner as it might treat him were this his first "petty property offense." Pp. 284-285.

587 F.2d 651, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 285. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 285.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner William James Rummel is presently serving a life sentence imposed by the State of Texas in 1973 under its "recidivist statute," formerly Art. 63 of its Penal Code, which provided that

[w]hoever shall have been three times convicted of a felony less than capital shall on such third conviction be imprisoned for life in the penitentiary.1

On January

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19, 1976, Rummel sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, arguing that life imprisonment was "grossly disproportionate" to the three felonies that formed the predicate for his sentence, and that therefore the sentence violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishments of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Rummel's claim, finding no unconstitutional disproportionality. We granted certiorari, 441 U.S. 960, and now affirm.

I

In 1964, the State of Texas charged Rummel with fraudulent use of a credit card to [100 S.Ct. 1135] obtain $80 worth of goods or services.2 Because the amount in question was greater than $50, the charged offense was a felony punishable by a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 10 years in the Texas Department of Corrections.3 Rummel eventually pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to three years' confinement in a state penitentiary.

In 1969, the State of Texas charged Rummel with passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36, a crime punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary for not less than two nor more

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than five years.4 Rummel pleaded guilty to this offense, and was sentenced to four years' imprisonment.

In 1973, Rummel was charged with obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses.5 Because the amount obtained was greater than $50, the charged offense was designated "felony theft," which, by itself, was punishable by confinement in a penitentiary for not less than 2 nor more than 10 years.6 The prosecution chose, however, to proceed against Rummel under Texas' recidivist statute, and cited in the indictment his 1964 and 1969 convictions as requiring imposition of a life sentence if Rummel were convicted of the charged offense. A jury convicted Rummel of felony theft, and also found as true the allegation that he had been convicted of two prior felonies. As a result, on April 26, 1973, the trial court imposed upon Rummel the life sentence mandated by Art. 63.

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The Texas appellate courts rejected Rummel's direct appeal, as well as his subsequent collateral attacks on his imprisonment.7 Rummel then filed a petition for [100 S.Ct. 1136] a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. In that petition, he claimed, inter alia, that his life sentence was so disproportionate to the crimes he had committed as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The District Court rejected this claim, first noting that this Court had already rejected a constitutional attack upon Art. 63, see Spencer v. Texas, 385 U.S. 554 (1967), and then crediting an argument by respondent that Rummel's sentence could not be viewed as life imprisonment because he would be eligible for parole in approximately 12 years.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed. 568 F.2d 1193 (CA5 1978). The majority relied upon this Court's decision in Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), and a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Hart v. Coiner, 483 F.2d 136 (1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 983 (1974), in holding that Rummel's life sentence was "so grossly disproportionate" to his offenses as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. 568 F.2d at 1200. The dissenting judge argued that

[n]o neutral principle of adjudication permits a federal court to hold that in a given situation individual crimes are too trivial in relation to the punishment imposed.

Id. at 1201-1202.

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Rummel's case was reheard by the Court of Appeals sitting en banc. That court vacated the panel opinion and affirmed the District Court's denial of habeas corpus relief on Rummel's Eighth Amendment claim. 587 F.2d 651 (CA5 1978). Of particular importance to the majority of the Court of Appeals en banc was the probability that Rummel would be eligible for parole within 12 years of his initial confinement. Six members of the Court of Appeals dissented, arguing that Rummel had no enforceable right to parole and that Weems and Hart compelled a finding that Rummel's life sentence was unconstitutional.

II

Initially, we believe it important to set forth two propositions that Rummel does not contest. First, Rummel does not challenge the constitutionality of Texas' recidivist statute as a general proposition. In Spencer v. Texas, supra, this Court upheld the very statute employed here, noting in the course of its opinion that similar statutes had been sustained against contentions that they violated

constitutional strictures dealing with double jeopardy, ex post facto laws, cruel and unusual punishment, due process, equal protection, and privileges and immunities.

385 U.S. at 560. Here, Rummel attacks only the result of applying this concededly valid statute to the facts of his case.

Second, Rummel does not challenge Texas' authority to punish each of his offenses as felonies, that is, by imprisoning him in a state penitentiary.8 Cf. Robinson v California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962) (statute making it a crime to be addicted to the use of narcotics violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments). See also Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651,

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667 (1977) (Eighth Amendment "imposes substantive limits on what can be made criminal and punished as such . . ."). Under Texas law, Rummel concededly cold have received sentences totaling 25 years in prison for what he refers to as his "petty property offenses." Indeed, when Rummel obtained $120.75 by false pretenses, he committed a crime punishable as a felony in at least 35 States and the District of Columbia.9 Similarly, [100 S.Ct. 1137] a large number of States authorized

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significant terms of imprisonment for each of Rummel's other offenses at the times he committed them.10 Rummel's challenge thus focuses only on the State's authority to impose a

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sentence of. life imprisonment, as opposed to a substantial term of years, for his third felony.

[100 S.Ct. 1138] This Court has on occasion stated that the Eighth...

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