What Constitutes Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment; Article 1, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution reiterates this prohibition. In order to make a claim of cruel and unusual punishment, a person has to look to see if the scope of the crime matches the penalty of the punishment. An obvious example could be: the punishment for stealing a shirt from a department store is getting your hand chopped off. What is cruel and unusual is judged by the standards that ordinary people hold today, in the modern world. Therefore, what is cruel and unusual could change as standards and morals change.

Currently in Pennsylvania, cruel and unusual punishment consists of:

  • Executing a mentally retarded person or a person adjudicated legally insane (a mere mental disability is not always going to be sufficient). Atkins v. Virginia (U.S. Supreme Court); Commonwealth v. Banks.
  • Housing persons in a prison which, from both an objective and subjective point of view, denies the prisoner the “minimum of life’s civilized necessities” and where the prison officials act with deliberate indifference to the health and safety of prisoners. Neely v. Department of Corrections.
  • Punishments which are wholly and irrationally disproportionate to the crime; the prohibition is against extreme sentences which are grossly disproportionate to the crime. Commonwealth v. Yasipour.
  • Excessive fines (although what constitutes “excessive is difficult to establish and largely relies on what the statutory maximum for the crime is, and whether the amount of money sought in some way recompenses for the illegal activity). Commonwealth v. Schill.
  • Life in jail without possibility of parole or the death penalty for persons under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. Commonwealth v. Chambers.

In Wyoming, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Art 1, s. 14, is phrased differently but has been held to have the same meaning as the Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

  • Treating a prisoner in a way which creates the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain contrary to contemporary standards of decency (this includes denying necessary medical and/or psychiatric help). Garnett v. Coyle.
  • Punishments which do not uphold the mandate that the penal code only mete sentences which are humane and are based on reformation and prevention of future criminal actions; the prohibition is against extreme sentences which are grossly disproportionate to the crime under the Eight Amendment as well. Oakley v. State; Dodge v. State.
  • Proportionality requires looking at 3 things: the gravity of the crime vs. the punishment, the sentences of others with similar crimes in this jurisdiction, the sentences of others with similar crimes in other jurisdictions. Smith v. State
  • Wyoming does not have a case specifically regarding execution of mentally retarded or insane persons, but has stated in dicta that it follows the prohibition against executing persons who are incapable of knowing what they did was wrong or that the person was incapable of preventing the wrong. Swazo v. State.
  • Requiring civil forfeiture may be a violation of the Eight Amendment and Wyoming Constitution under the excessive fines clause. Doles v. State.
  • Wyoming has a more stringent requirement regarding bail than the United States Constitution and requires that if possible all persons not guilty of first degree murder be given a chance to be released on bail. Simms v. Oedekoven.

What is a Seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution mimics this protection. We have discussed the basic tenants of what comprises a search, but what is a seizure?

The most basic definition of a seizure is when government meaningfully interferes with an individual’s possessory property rights or liberty. So in order to have a seizure of a person or property, there must be a meaningful interference with a person’s property or with their liberty.

What constitutes a “meaningful” interference is a fact based question. Each case which challenges the interference with property rights will have to look at cases with similar fact patterns and determine whether the court would find that interference meaningful.

For example, an additional barrel of chemicals loaded onto your truck is not a meaningful interference with your property rights. However, a stop of your vehicle without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrongdoing is a meaningful interference. Any restraint on a person’s liberty by a person of authority is a seizure, and sometimes that’s lawful, and sometimes its not.

Just being a seizure isn’t enough to be objectionable in court. The protection extends only to unreasonable seizures. So the question really is: what makes a seizure unreasonable? There is a three part test the United States Supreme Court developed to evaluate reasonableness.

  1. The gravity of the public interest which will be served by the seizure
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances public interest
  3. How greatly the seizure interferes with personal liberties

Again, this is a fact based test. Each case is going to be looked at individually, although both Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court have stated that in order to pass the test, the seizure must begin with a minimum of reasonable suspicion. That is, the officers must have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. This suspicion must be particularized such that it can be spoken by an officer and must be individualized such that the officer can point to one or maybe two people or objects that are suspicious.

This is a general idea of the law defining your right against unreasonable seizure. Talk to your attorney today about the evidence against you, and whether it may have been a product of an unreasonable search or seizure.  Even if you have challenged the evidence at trial for being unreasonably seized, there still may be an opportunity to appeal and get the evidence removed in a new trial.

You deserve every opportunity for a great defense.

When Can I Appeal a Case?

I have discussed appeals before, but some of you may wonder, “when can I appeal a case?” This post attempts to answer that question with as little legalese as possible. A case is appealable at two times: (1) at the final order and disposition of the case, or (2) if it is an order included in the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure (P.R.A.P.) Rule 311. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

What is a “final order”?

P.R.A.P. Rule 341 defines a “final order” for us. When the case is over an order is given by the judge. The order is the final order and disposition when it gives a ruling regarding all claims and all parties, or it is expressly defined as a final order. In other words, that order disposes all of the things the court was supposed to address and so it is appealable.

An order may also be a final order if, when there are multiple claims and only one claim has a verdict, and it has appealable issues, and getting a final verdict on that issue will help determine the other claims,then the court will allow the appeal. This strategy would come into play only when there are multiple claims, and is a little more complicated than the other 2 final dispositions.

Discuss with your attorney what orders are final, although it is usually straightforward. If everything appears to be addressed in the order, it is final. If there are claims or parties left in limbo, it is not final. If it is not final, you might still be able to appeal if the appeal will deal with those claims or parties in limbo as well.

What else is appealable?

The other appealable issues arise when someone’s rights are going to be irreversibly affected by the order, but it is definitely not a final order. When an order is appealed but is not a final order, it is called interlocutory.

–          An order refusing to vacate, open, or strike a judgment is immediately appealable because it is an order which affects a judgment of a person.

–          An order to attach, vacating an attachment, or refusing to attach is appealable. An attachment is a lien on property, meaning that if somebody owed you money, you could attach his property and sell it to get the money. Selling property is something that causes irreversible damage.

–          An order to change criminal venue is appealable. This means that if your trial is ordered moved you have the right to appeal that decision because where your trial takes place determines the jury that will be called and that could cause irreversible harm.

–          An order granting, denying or altering an injunction is appealable. An injunction tells a person they may not do something. Because Americans have a liberty interest in being free to do various things, the order can cause irreparable harm.

–          An order determining the validity of a will or trust is appealable so that no distributions will be made from the estate or trust until all issues have been worked out.

It’s a long list, and it is incomplete. Other cases and rules alter this list slightly, but these are the more common instances of appealable issues.

If you think you have an appealable order, and have a reason to appeal it, you should talk to your attorney. Your attorney should be able to inform you of whether your hunch is right and you have an appealable order.

What if I appeal the case, and it turns out it wasn’t appealable yet?

You must meet all procedural requirements of docketing the case and giving the court the trial record. If, after doing that, the court finds that the issue is not ripe for appeal, the Court will then “quash” the appeal. What happens when a court “quashes” an appeal? The judge gets really, REALLY mad and yells at you!

No, no, just kidding.

When a court refuses to hear an appeal, it quashes it. This simply means the court hands the issue back to the trial court. The appeals court will remand the issue so that the trial court can finish its job, whether that be to go to trial, to finalize an order, or some procedural step that was missed such as filing a document. Your case is not prejudiced by being remanded to the trial court, it is just the appeals court explaining that it’s not your turn to be heard.

After the trial court finishes its job, you will be permitted to appeal again.