Rummel v. Estelle
In Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the then-existing mandatory life sentence under Texas' recidivist statute for a third felony conviction.
The defendant (William James Rummel) had committed the three felonies in the following series:
- In 1964, Rummel fraudulently used a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods or services; since the amount exceeded $50 it was a felony and Rummel was sentenced to three years in prison.
- In 1969, Rummel passed a forged check in the amount of $28.36; also a felony, this time he was sentenced to four years.
- The third offense took place in 1973, when Rummel obtained $120.75 by false pretenses: he failed to return the money for air conditioner repairs that (depending on the source) were either performed shoddily or not at all. That crime was also a felony and would have only been subject to a sentence of 2-10 years, but based on Rummel's prior felony history, the prosecution sought enhancement under the "three strikes law".
Defendant's challenge that the life imprisonment violated the Eighth Amendment was rejected.
In a dissent written by Justice Lewis Powell and supported by three Justices, they stated that:
- "We are construing a living Constitution. The sentence imposed upon the petitioner would be viewed as grossly unjust by virtually every layman and lawyer. In my view, objective criteria clearly establish that a mandatory life sentence for defrauding persons of about $ 230 crosses any rationally drawn line separating punishment that lawfully may be imposed from that which is proscribed by the Eighth Amendment."
The dissent quoted the following from Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 373 (1910):
- "Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle to be vital must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth. This is particularly true of constitutions. They are not ephemeral enactments, designed to meet passing occasions. They are, to use the words of Chief Justice Marshall, 'designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it.'"
Rummel later filed another habeas corpus challenge to his sentence, this time claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. On October 3, 1980, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas granted Rummel's petition for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Rummel then pleaded guilty to theft by false pretenses and was sentenced to time served under the terms of a plea-bargaining agreement.
Texas would later amend its three strikes law to remove the mandatory life imprisonment rule, changing it to permit a jury to return a sentence of life (with the possibility of parole) or a sentence of a term between 25 and 99 years.
The Rummel case is commonly used by Texas courts as a proportionality test (if requested on appeal, usually by the defendant) to determine whether, under the Eighth Amendment, a sentence is excessive. Almost always the ruling is that a sentence is not excessive, given that Rummel's life sentence for a small felony conviction which only involved misappropriation of a small amount of property, enhanced by his two prior convictions both involving similar offenses and both involving small amounts of property, was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. The case has also been used by Federal courts for proportionality test purposes, again with usually the same ruling that the sentence is not excessive.