454 U.S. 370 (1982), 81-23, Hutto v. Davis

Docket Nº:No. 81-23
Citation:454 U.S. 370, 102 S.Ct. 703, 70 L.Ed.2d 556
Party Name:Hutto v. Davis
Case Date:January 11, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 370

454 U.S. 370 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 703, 70 L.Ed.2d 556

Hutto

v.

Davis

No. 81-23

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 11, 1982

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES

COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent was convicted in a Virginia state court of possessing with intent to distribute and distribution of nine ounces of marihuana, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison as authorized by Virginia law. After exhausting direct appeal, respondent brought an action in Federal District Court seeking a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the 40-year sentence was so grossly disproportionate to the crime that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court issued the writ, and, ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed, after its prior affirmance had been vacated by this Court and the case had been remanded for reconsideration in light of Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263.

Held: By affirming the District Court's decision after this Court's decision in Rummel, supra -- which stands for the proposition that federal courts should be reluctant to review legislatively mandated prison terms, and successful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences should be exceedingly rare -- the Court of Appeals sanctioned an intrusion into the basic line-drawing process that is properly within the province of legislatures, not courts. More importantly, the Court of Appeals ignored the hierarchy of the federal court system created by the Constitution and Congress.

Certiorari granted; 646 F.2d 123, reversed and remanded.

Per curiam opinion.

PER CURIAM.

On October 26, 1973, law enforcement officers raided respondent's home and seized approximately nine ounces of marihuana and assorted drug paraphernalia. Several days before the raid, officers had tape-recorded a transaction in which respondent had sold marihuana and other controlled substances to a police informant. With the aid of the seized

Page 371

evidence and the [102 S.Ct. 704] tape recording, respondent was convicted in Virginia state court of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of marihuana. The jury imposed a fine of $10,000 and a prison term of 20 years on each of the two counts, the prison terms to run consecutively. At the time of respondent's conviction, Virginia law authorized fines of up to $25,000 and prison terms of not less than 5 nor more than 40 years for each of respondent's offenses. Davis v. Davis, 585 F.2d 1226, 1229 (CA4 1978).

After exhausting direct appeal, respondent brought a habeas action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, asserting that a 40-year sentence was so grossly disproportionate to the crime of possessing less than nine ounces of marihuana that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment as proscribed by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court, relying primarily upon the four factors set forth in Hart v. Coiner, 483 F.2d 136 (CA4 1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 938 (1974), agreed:

After examining the nature of the offense, the legislative purpose behind the punishment, the punishment in the Commonwealth of Virginia for other offenses, and the punishment actually imposed for the same or similar offenses in Virginia, this court must necessarily conclude that a sentence of forty years and twenty thousand dollars in fines is so grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crimes as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Davis v. Zahradnick, 432 F.Supp. 444, 453 (1977). Accordingly, the District Court issued a writ of habeas corpus.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. Davis v. Davis, supra. The

Page 372

panel correctly noted that this Court "has never found a sentence for a term of years within the limits authorized by statute to be, by itself, a cruel and unusual punishment," 585 F.2d at 1229, and held that respondent had failed to show that his sentence, in light of the factors known to the jury1 and the punishment authorized by Virginia, was sufficiently extraordinary to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 1233. The decision was short-lived. Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals reheard the case and, "for reasons sufficiently stated by the district judge in his opinion," affirmed the award of habeas relief. Davis v. Davis, 601 F.2d 153, 154 (1979). We granted certiorari vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of our decision in Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980). Sub nom. Hutto v. Davis, 445 U.S. 947 (1980). The Court of Appeals again affirmed the District Court, this time by an equally divided vote. Davis v. Davis, 646 F.2d 123 (1981). Because the Court of Appeals failed to heed our decision in Rummel, we now reverse.

The petitioner in Rummel was sentenced to life imprisonment under the Texas recidivist statute upon being convicted of his third felony: obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses. He had previously been convicted of passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36, and of fraudulently using a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods or services. 445 U.S. at 265-266. Like the respondent in this case, Rummel argued that the length of his imprisonment was so "grossly disproportionate" to the crime for which he was sentenced that it violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment of the

Page 373

Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In rejecting that [102 S.Ct. 705] argument, we distinguished between punishments -- such as the death penalty -- which, by their very nature, differ from all other forms of conventionally accepted punishment, and punishments which differ from others only in duration. This distinction was based upon two factors. First, this "Court's Eighth Amendment judgments should neither be nor appear to be merely the subjective views of individual Justices." Id. at 275. And second, the excessiveness of one prison term as compared to another is invariably a subjective determination, there being no clear way to make "any constitutional distinction between one term of years and a shorter or longer term of years." Ibid. Thus, we concluded that

one could argue without fear of contradiction by any decision of this Court that, for crimes concededly classified and classifiable as felonies, . . . the length of the sentence actually imposed is purely a matter of legislative prerogative.

Id. at 274. Accordingly, we held that Rummel's life sentence did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

As mentioned above, the District Court found respondent's sentence to be unconstitutional by applying the four-part test of Hart v. Coiner, supra. Hart also was relied upon by the lower court dissenters in Rummel, and was implicitly disapproved by our rejection of the dissenters' view. Not only did we expressly recognize Hart as the primary opposing authority, 445 U.S. at 267, 269, but our opinion also disapproved each of its four "objective" factors.2 Because the District Court's grant of habeas relief was clearly guided by these factors, the Court of Appeals erred in affirming.

Page 374

In short, Rummel stands for the proposition that federal courts should be "reluctan[t] to review legislatively mandated terms of imprisonment," id. at 274, and that "successful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences" should be "exceedingly rare," id. at 272. By affirming the District Court decision after our decision in Rummel, the Court of Appeals [102 S.Ct. 706] sanctioned an intrusion into the basic linedrawing process that is "properly within the province of legislatures, not courts." Id. at 275-276. More importantly, however, the Court of Appeals could be viewed as having ignored,

Page 375

consciously or unconsciously, the hierarchy of the federal court system created by the Constitution and Congress. Admittedly, the Members of this Court decide cases "by virtue of their commissions, not their competence." And arguments may be made one way or the other whether the present case is distinguishable, except as to its facts, from Rummel. But unless we wish anarchy to prevail within the federal judicial system, a precedent of this Court must be followed by the lower federal courts no matter how misguided the judges of those courts may think it to be.

Accordingly, the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to the District Court with instructions to dismiss respondent's habeas petition.

It is so ordered.

POWELL, J., concurring

JUSTICE POWELL, concurring in the judgment.

The Court holds that the Eighth Amendment countenances a prison term of 40 years and a fine of $20,000 for respondent's possession and distribution of approximately nine ounces of marihuana said to have a street value of about $200. I view the sentence as unjust and disproportionate to the offense. Nevertheless, for the reasons stated below, I reluctantly conclude that the Court's decision in Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980), is controlling on the facts before us. Accordingly, I join the judgment only.

I

The respondent Davis met Eads in prison. During Eads' confinement, his wife had become a drug user. Concerned about this development and its effect on their 2-year-old child, Eads offered to cooperate with the police

to assist in the exposure and arrest of those supplying drugs to his wife and any illicit drug distributor in the area, including Davis, who Eads identified as an active drug dealer in Wythe County.

Davis v. Davis, 585 F.2d 1226...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP