Solem v. Helm

United States Supreme Court

463 U.S. 277, 103 S. Ct. 3001, 77 L.Ed.2d 637 (1983)


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. In 1972 he was convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses. In 1973 he was convicted of grand larceny. And in 1975 he was convicted of third-offense driving while intoxicated. 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.


In 1979 Helm was charged with [and convicted of] uttering a “no account” check for $100. ...


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. ... As a result of his criminal record, how- ever, 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 Sec. 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. ... 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.” ... The Governor is authorized to pardon prisoners, or to commute their sentences 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. ... The South Dakota Supreme Court, in a 3--2 decision, affirmed the sentence despite Helm’s argument that it violated the Eighth Amendment. ...


After Helm had served two years in the state penitentiary, he requested the Governor to commute his sentence to a fixed term of years. Such a commutation would have had the effect of making Helm eligible to be considered for parole when he had served three-fourths of his new sentence. ... The Governor denied Helm’s request in May 1981. ...


In November 1981, Helm sought habeas relief in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota. ... [The Court] denied the writ. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. ...


We granted certiorari to consider the Eighth Amendment question presented by this case. ... We now affirm.




The Eighth Amendment declares: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The final clause prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed. ...


In sum, we hold as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Reviewing courts, of course, should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishments for crimes, as well as to the discretion that trial courts possess in sentencing convicted criminals. But no penalty is per se constitutional. As the Court noted in Robinson v. California … [1962], a single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.


III [omitted]




It remains to apply the analytical framework established by our prior decisions to the case before us. We first consider the relevant criteria, viewing Helm’s sentence as life imprisonment without possibility of parole. We then consider the state’s argument that the possibility of commutation is sufficient to save an otherwise unconstitutional sentence.




Helm’s crime was “one of the most passive felonies a person could commit.” ... It involved neither violence nor threat of violence to any person. The $100 face value of Helm’s “no-account” check was not trivial, but neither was it a large amount. One hundred dollars was less than half the amount South Dakota required for a felonious theft. It is easy to see why such a crime is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. ...


Helm, of course, was not charged simply with uttering a “no-account” check, but also with being an habitual offender. And a State is justified in punishing a recidivist more severely than it punishes a first offender. Helm’s status, however, cannot be considered in the abstract. His prior offenses, although classified as felonies, were all relatively minor. All were non-violent and none was crime against a person. Indeed, there was no minimum amount in either the burglary or the false pretenses statutes ... and the minimum amount covered by the grand larceny statute was fairly small. ...


Helm’s present sentence is life imprisonment without possibility of parole. ... Helm’s sentence is the most severe punishment that the State could have imposed on any criminal for any crime. ... Only capital punishment, a penalty not authorized in South Dakota when Helm was sentenced, exceeds it.


We next consider the sentences that could be imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction. When Helm was sentenced, a South Dakota court was required to impose a life sentence for murder, ... and was authorized to impose a life sentence for treason, ... first degree manslaughter, ... first degree arson, ... and kidnapping . ... No other crime was punishable so severely on the first offense. Attempted murder, ... placing an explosive device on an aircraft, ... and first degree rape, ... were only Class 2 felonies. Aggravated riot was only a Class 3 felony. ... Distribution of heroin ... and aggravated assault ... were only Class 4 felonies.


Helm’s habitual offender status complicates our analysis, but relevant comparisons are still possible. Under [South Dakota law] the penalty for a second or third felony is increased by one class. Thus a life sentence was mandatory when a second or third conviction was for treason, first degree manslaughter, first degree arson, or kidnapping, and a life sentence was mandatory when a second or third conviction was for such crimes as attempted murder, placing an explosive device on an aircraft, or first degree rape. Finally, [the law] under which Helm was sentenced, authorized life imprisonment after three prior convictions, regardless of the crimes.


In sum, there were a handful of crimes that were necessarily punished by life imprisonment: murder, and, on a second or third offense, treason, first degree manslaughter, first degree arson, and kidnapping. There was a larger group for which life imprisonment was authorized in the discretion of the sentencing judge, including: treason, first degree manslaughter, first degree arson, and kidnapping; attempted murder, placing an explosive device on an aircraft, and first degree rape on a second or third offense; and any felony after three prior offenses. Finally, there was a large group of very serious offenses for which life imprisonment was not authorized, including a third offense of heroin dealing or aggravated assault.


Criminals committing any of these offenses ordinarily would be thought more deserving of punishment than one uttering a “no account” check---even when the bad-check writer had already committed six minor felonies. Moreover, there is no indication in the record that any habitual offender other than Helm has ever been given the maximum sentence on the basis of comparable crimes. It is more likely that the possibility of life imprisonment ... generally is reserved for criminals such as fourth-time heroin dealers, while habitual bad-check writers receive more lenient treatment. In any event, Helm has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, criminals who have committed far more serious crimes.


Finally, we compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. The Court of Appeals found that “Helm could have received a life sentence without parole for his offense in only one other state, Nevada,” ... and we have no reason to doubt this finding. ... At the very least, therefore, it is clear that Helm could not have received such a severe sentence in 48 of the 50 States. But even under Nevada law, a life sentence without possibility of parole is merely authorized in these circumstances. ... We are not advised that any defendant such as Helm, whose prior offenses were so minor, actually has received the maximum penalty in Nevada. It appears that Helm was treated more severely than he would have been in any other States. ...




The Constitution requires us to examine Helm’s sentence to determine if it is proportionate to his crime. Applying objective criteria, we find that Helm has received that penultimate sentence for relatively minor criminal conduct. He has been treated more harshly than other criminals in the State who have committed more serious crimes. He has been treated more harshly than he would have been in any other jurisdiction, with the possible exception of a single State. We conclude that his sentence is significantly disproportionate to his crime, and is therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly affirmed.



Chief Justice Burger, with whom Justice White, Justice Rehnquist, and Justice O’Connor join, dissenting.


The controlling law governing this case is crystal clear, but today the Court blithely discards any concept of stare decisis, trespasses gravely on the authority of the States, and distorts the concept of proportionality of punishment by tearing it from its moorings in capital cases. Only two Terms ago, we held in Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980), that a life sentence imposed after only a third nonviolent felony conviction did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Today, the Court ignores its recent precedent and holds that a life sentence imposed after a seventh felony conviction constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Moreover, I reject the fiction that all Helm’s crimes were innocuous or nonviolent. Among his felonies were three burglaries and a third conviction for drunk driving. By comparison Rummel was a relatively “model citizen.” Although today’s holding cannot rationally be reconciled with Rummel, the Court does not purport to overrule Rummel. I therefore dissent. ...