Sometimes, the United States Supreme Court rules by declining to rule. When a case is appealed to the Supreme Court, the Court may opt to not accept the case. When that happens, the practical effect is that the law created by the lower court remains the law.
This was the case recently when the Supreme Court declined to get involved in a case involving the Eighth Amendment’s restriction on cruel and unusual punishment.
Severe Penalty for Drug Possession
The case arose from a conviction of a man for having three ounces of marijuana, which the man, a disabled veteran, contended was for personal use only. There was no evidence he was selling any of the marijuana he was found growing on his property (although there is some indication that he had prior charges, which included drug trafficking).
The man lived in Alabama. Unlike many states which have started to lessen drug penalties, and wake up to the realities of harsh sentences for smaller drug crimes, Alabama’s law is quite punitive, allowing sentencing to life in jail without parole, if someone has prior felony convictions.
For his part, the judge at the trial stated that he did not want to impose such a harsh sentence, but that he was tied by the law which required it. In fact, this is a common criticism of mandatory sentences—that they take away the judge’s discretion to sentence, and the judge is in the best position to assess a fair penalty, not legislators.
It is worth noting that although the law requires the sentence, that is only if it is requested by the prosecutor. The prosecutor could have sought a lesser charge. However, they sought the maximum, trying to frame the defendant as a lifelong offender, worthy of such a harsh penalty.
Appeal is Unsuccessful
The man’s attorneys appealed the sentence to a higher Alabama court, claiming that because the punishment was so excessive considering the crime, that it violated the constitution’s Eighth Amendment to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, life without parole is sometimes considered the second most severe criminal penalty (after the death sentence). Although the Alabama chief justice found the sentence excessive, the majority of the appellate court upheld the sentence.
Now, it appears the sentence will stand because the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court filed by the defendant’s attorney has been denied, in effect it has refused to hear the case. This is despite the fact that the Court has been willing in the past to enforce the Eighth Amendment based upon current standards of decency, and how American standards of crime and punishment evolve. Despite the trend towards leniency and even legalization when it comes to marijuana, the Court here chose not to intervene.
The Court does not typically give reasons why it refuses to hear a case. But the denial means the Alabama law and the man’s excessive sentence will stand for now.
Criminal penalties can be harsh. Make sure you mount a vigorous defense and the Court hears all the facts of your case. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss representation from arrest to trial.