463 U.S. 277 (1983), 82-492, Solem v. Helm

Docket Nº:No. 82-492.
Citation:463 U.S. 277, 103 S.Ct. 3001, 77 L.Ed.2d 637
Party Name:Herman SOLEM, Warden, Petitioner v. Jerry Buckley HELM.
Case Date:June 28, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court

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463 U.S. 277 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 3001, 77 L.Ed.2d 637

Herman SOLEM, Warden, Petitioner


Jerry Buckley HELM.

No. 82-492.

United States Supreme Court.

June 28, 1983

Argued March 29, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 3002] Syllabus[*]


In 1979, respondent was convicted in a South Dakota state court of uttering a "no account" check for $100. Ordinarily the maximum punishment for that crime would have been five years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Respondent, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole under South Dakota's recidivist statute because of his six prior felony convictions--three convictions for third-degree burglary and convictions for obtaining money under false pretenses, grand larceny, and third-offense driving while intoxicated. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. After respondent's request for commutation was denied, he sought habeas relief in Federal District Court, contending that his sentence [103 S.Ct. 3003] constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed.


1. The Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishments prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed. Pp. 3006-3010.

(a) The principle of proportionality is deeply rooted in common-law jurisprudence. It was expressed in Magna Carta, applied by the English courts for centuries, and repeated in the English Bill of Rights in language that was adopted in the Eighth Amendment. When the Framers of the Eighth Amendment adopted this language, they adopted the principle of proportionality that was implicit in it. Pp. 3006-3007.

(b) The constitutional principle of proportionality has been recognized explicitly in this Court for almost a century. In several cases the Court has applied the principle to invalidate criminal sentences. E.g., Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 30 S.Ct. 544, 54 L.Ed. 793. And the Court often has recognized that the Eighth Amendment proscribes grossly disproportionate punishments, even when it has not been necessary to rely on the proscription. Pp. 3007-3008.

(c) There is no basis for the State's assertion that the principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences. Neither the text of the Eighth Amendment nor the history behind it supports such an exception. Moreover, this Court's cases have recognized explicitly that

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prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis. No penalty is per se constitutional. Pp. 3009-3010.

2. A court's proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment should be guided by objective criteria. Pp. 3010-3012.

(a) Criteria that have been recognized in this Court's prior cases include (i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction, that is, whether more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty or to less serious penalties; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. Pp. 3010-3011.

(b) Courts are competent to judge the gravity of an offense, at least on a relative scale. Comparisons can be made in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim or to society, and the culpability of the offender. There are generally accepted criteria for comparing the severity of different crimes, despite the difficulties courts face in attempting to draw distinctions between similar crimes. P. 3011.

(c) Courts are also able to compare different sentences. For sentences of imprisonment, the problem is one of line-drawing. Decisions of this kind, although troubling, are not unique to this area. The courts are constantly called upon to draw similar lines in a variety of contexts. Cf. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 92 S.Ct. 2182, 33 L.Ed.2d 101; Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, 90 S.Ct. 1886, 26 L.Ed.2d 437. Pp. 3011-3012.

3. In light of the relevant objective criteria, respondent's sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole is significantly disproportionate to his crime, and is therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 3012-3016.

(a) Respondent's crime of uttering a "no account" check for $100 is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. It involved neither violence nor threat of violence, and the face value of the check was not a large amount. Respondent's prior felonies were also relatively minor. All were nonviolent and none was a crime against a person. Respondent's sentence was the most severe that the State could have imposed on any criminal for any crime. He has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, other criminals in South Dakota who have committed far more serious crimes. Nevada is the only other State that authorizes a life sentence without possibility of parole in the circumstances of this case, and there is no [103 S.Ct. 3004] indication that any defendant such as respondent, whose prior offenses were so minor, has received the maximum penalty in Nevada. Pp. 3012-3015.

(b) The possibility of commutation of a life sentence under South Dakota law is not sufficient to save respondent's otherwise unconstitutional sentence on the asserted theory that this possibility matches the possibility of parole. Assuming good behavior, parole is the normal

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expectation in the vast majority of cases, and is governed by specified legal standards. Commutation is an ad hoc exercise of executive clemency that may occur at any time for any reason without reference to any standards. In South Dakota, no life sentence has been commuted in over eight years, while parole--where authorized--has been granted regularly during that period. Moreover, even if respondent's sentence were commuted, he merely would be eligible to be considered for parole. Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 100 S.Ct. 1133, 63 L.Ed.2d 382, distinguished. Pp. 3015-3016.

684 F.2d 582, affirmed.


Mark V. Meierhenry, Attorney General of South Dakota, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Grant Gormley, Assistant Attorney General.

John J. Burnett, by appointment of the Court, 459 U.S. 1100, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Mark V. Meierhenry, Atty. Gen., Pierre, S.D., for petitioner.

John J. Burnett, Rapid City, S.D., for respondent.


Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented is whether the Eighth Amendment proscribes a life sentence without possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony.


By 1975 the State of South Dakota had convicted respondent Jerry Helm of six nonviolent felonies. In 1964, 1966, and 1969 Helm was convicted of third-degree burglary. 1 In 1972

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he was convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses. 2 In 1973 he was convicted of grand larceny. 3 And in 1975 he was convicted of third-offense [103 S.Ct. 3005] driving while intoxicated. 4 The record contains no details about the circumstances of any of these offenses, except that they were all nonviolent, none was a crime against a person, and alcohol was a contributing factor in each case.

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In 1979 Helm was charged with uttering a "no account" check for $100. 5 The only details we have of the crime are those given by Helm to the state trial court:

" 'I was working in Sioux Falls, and got my check that day, was drinking and I ended up here in Rapid City with more money than I had when I started. I knew I'd done something I didn't know exactly what. If I would have known this, I would have picked the check up. I was drinking and didn't remember, stopped several places.' " State v. Helm, 287 N.W.2d 497, 501 (S.D.1980) (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting Helm).

After offering this explanation, Helm pleaded guilty.

Ordinarily the maximum punishment for uttering a "no account" check would have been five years imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $5,000 fine. See S.D.Comp.Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(6) (1967 ed., supp. 1978) (now codified at S.D. Codified Laws § 22-6-1(7) (Supp.1982)). As a result of his criminal record, however, Helm was subject to South Dakota's recidivist statute:

"When a defendant has been convicted of at least three prior convictions [sic ] in addition to the principal felony, the sentence for the principal felony shall be enhanced to the sentence for a Class 1 felony." S.D. Codified Laws § 22-7-8 (1979) (amended 1981).

The maximum penalty for a "Class 1 felony" was life imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $25,000 fine. 6 S.D.

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Comp.Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(2) (1967 ed., supp. 1978) (now codified at S.D. Codified Laws § 22-6-1(3) (Supp.1982)). Moreover, South Dakota law explicitly provides that parole is unavailable: "A person sentenced to life imprisonment is not eligible for parole by the board of pardons and paroles." S.D. Codified Laws § 24-15-4 (1979). The Governor7 is authorized to pardon prisoners, or [103 S.Ct. 3006] to commute their sentences, S.D. Const., Art. IV, § 3, but no other relief from sentence is available even to a rehabilitated prisoner.

Immediately after accepting Helm's guilty plea, the South Dakota Circuit Court sentenced Helm to life imprisonment under § 22-7-8. The court explained:

" 'I think you certainly earned this sentence and certainly proven that you're an habitual criminal and the record

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would indicate that you're beyond rehabilitation and that the only prudent thing to do is to lock you up for the rest of your natural life, so you won't have further victims of your crimes, just be coming back before Courts. You'll have plenty of time to think this one over.' " State v. Helm, 287 N.W.2d, at 500 (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting S.D. Circuit Court, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Pennington County (Parker, J.)).

The South Dakota Supreme Court,...

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