Lockyer v. Andrade (2003)
Lockyer v. Andrade (2003) provides a controversial example of a case in which the Supreme Court examined whether a specific punishment should be considered “cruel and unusual” in violation of the 8th Amendment because it was allegedly disproportionate to the crime. Criminal sentences can be found to violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause either because of proportionality (they are disproportionate—too severe—for the crime being punished) or torturousness (they are akin to torture in their impact on the sentenced human being). A man with a drug addiction problem stole a total of $153 worth of children’s videos in two separate thefts from different K-Mart stores. Because he had prior convictions for burglary and theft offenses, California’s “three strikes law” was applied to him and he was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 50 years. The Supreme Court’s justices have typically given states the authority to define their own sentences for non-death penalty offenses. Thus, the majority of justices said that the sentence was did not constitute improper cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the dissenting opinion of Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer:
…. Perhaps even more tellingly, no one could seriously argue that the second theft of videotapes provided any basis to think that Andrade would be so dangerous after 25 years, the date on which the consecutive sentence would begin to run, as to require at least 25 years more. I know of no jurisdiction that would add 25 years of imprisonment simply to reflect the fact that the two temporally related thefts took place on two separate occasions, and I am not surprised that California has found no such case, not even under its three-strikes law. Tr. of Oral Arg. 52 (State’s counsel acknowledging “I have no reference to any 50-yearto-life sentences based on two convictions”). In sum, the argument that repeating a trivial crime justifies doubling a 25-year minimum incapacitation sentence based on a threat to the public does not raise a seriously debatable point on which judgments might reasonably differ. The argument is irrational, and the state court’s acceptance of it in response to a facially gross disproportion between triggering offense and penalty was unreasonable…
This is the rare sentence of demonstrable gross disproportionality, as the California Legislature may well have recognized when it specifically provided that a prosecutor may move to dismiss or strike a prior felony conviction “in the furtherance of justice.” Cal. Penal Code Ann. § 667(f)(2) (West 1999). In this case, the statutory safeguard failed, and the state court was left to ensure that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on grossly disproportionate sentences was met. If Andrade’s sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning. The California court’s holding was an unreasonable application of clearly established precedent.