The 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was part of the original Bill of Rights ratified by Congress in 1791.
The original 8th Amendment text reads:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Better known as the “cruel and unusual punishment amendment,” the 8th Amendment protects U.S. citizens against unlawful abuse or excessive sanctions for crimes committed.
The 8th Amendment includes three clauses. First, it prohibits the court from setting an unreasonable amount for bail or fines and then it protects against any abuse or cruel and unusual punishment.
The origins of this amendment came directly from an almost identical one in the English Bill of Rights from 1969 declared by Parliament.
The 8th Amendment originated from a case back in 1865 in England where Titus Oates was convicted of multiple acts of perjury that resulted in the deaths of many people he had lied about and incriminated. Under King James II, Oates was subjected to years of unusual and cruel punishment labeled “barbaric” by subjects. Not only was he sentenced to prison, but once a year they took him out for two days pillory, and then tied him to a moving cart and whipped him for a full day. To prevent this from happening in America, the 8th Amendment forces our judicial system to operate on a platform of equality and reasonableness where the “punishment fits the crime.”
Upon reflection member of Parliament referred to Oats sentence as “barbarous,” “inhuman,” ”extravagant,” and “exorbitant.”
The 8th Amendment is used in courts all over America every day. Examples are when a judge sets bail for a criminal defendant or doles out the prisoner’s sentence. The 8th Amendment ensures that the judge, despite any personal feelings about the case does not impose excessive punishment or fines larger than what is appropriate.
Even with this amendment in place, court cases are often overruled, and the 8th Amendment brought into play. The Supreme Court often finds some sentences to be extreme and violate the 8th Amendment.
Congress has also extended the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause to the states as well, and all district courts must abide by this law.
In Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, 1909, the Attorney General filed a suit against Waters-Pierce Oil Company. The company was found guilty of violating an antitrust agreement. The sentencing was a fine of $5,000 paid daily for 300 days. They appealed claiming it was excessive punishment but the Supreme Court overruled, in part due to the massive fortune the company incurred during the violation.
In Weems v. United States, 1910, Paul Weems, an employee of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation falsified documentation and was sentenced to 15 years in prison along with hard labor. On appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling claiming his 8th Amendment rights were violated.
Then in Trop v. Dulles, 1958, Albert Trop, quit the military while on a mission in Morocco. When he applied for a passport years later, he was denied, and his U.S. citizenship revoked. The Supreme Court ruled that it was clearly excessive and unusual punishment for abandoning his military post.
In Powell v. Texas, 1968, Leroy Powell a Texas resident was often arrested for public intoxication. He appealed two years later, and the Supreme Court ruled against him claiming that when he was convicted Alcoholism was not considered a valid disease or argument in a court of law.
The case of Furman v. Georgia, 1972, hinged on the fate of William Furman who was sentenced to death after murdering a homeowner while burglarizing their house. The Supreme Court justice that presided claimed that the death penalty was sentenced because Furman was black.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 8th Amendment did not apply when the government did not benefit or receive any of the fines awarded in Browning-Ferris Industries v. Kelco Disposal, (1989).
Finally, in United States v. Bajakajian, 1998 when traveling to Cypress, Hosep Krikor Bajakajian brought with him a large amount of cash to pay off debts. He neglected to declare the $357,144 to customs officers who seized the full amount in fines. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that Bajakajian’s 8th Amendment was violated and that the punishment was “disproportional” to the crime.
Even though we don’t live under a Monarch system or dictatorship, the protection offered by the 8th Amendment is still very valid and appreciated by American citizens who have crossed the line with the law.
The punishment should always fit the crime, and in our modern society, this is truer than ever. It is comforting to have the 8th Amendment protection in place should any U.S. citizen need it during their criminal justice process.