Getting convicted for a crime is a life-changing event. However, just how life-changing it can be is determined in the next part of the process: Sentencing. This is where the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, comes into play.
However, exactly what amount to punishment that's “cruel and unusual” is up for debate. The most recent case in this debate, United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, is not a good one.
On October 6, 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted Operation Guard Shack, the largest police corruption case in its history, arresting 133 suspects in Puerto Rico. Most of these suspects were police officers who had allegedly helped drug traffickers. To get evidence against these suspects, the FBI had conducted a series of fake drug deals. Wendell Rivera-Ruperto was one of those arrested: He'd provided armed security at six of these fake drug deals, and had sold a handgun at one of them.
Rivera-Ruperto was put on trial in the Federal District Court of Puerto Rico, and was found guilty.
The district court judge then sentenced Rivera-Ruperto to an absolutely astounding 161 years and 10 months in jail. Remember, Rivera-Ruperto hadn't even sold drugs in the deals – he'd only been a security guard.
Rivera-Ruperto appealed the sentence, claiming, among other things, that the length violated the Eighth Amendment. Because his trial had been held in federal court in Puerto Rico, his appeal was handled by the First Circuit Court, which also has jurisdiction over the state of Maine.
The First Circuit Court said that the nearly-162-year jail sentence was not disproportionate to the crime, and therefore did not violate the Eighth Amendment.
Eighth Amendment and Jail Terms
In order for a jail sentence to violate the Eighth Amendment, a court has to look at three things:
- The harshness of the penalty compared to the seriousness of the crime,
- Sentences of other criminals in the same jurisdiction, and
- Sentences for the same crime in other jurisdictions
The First Circuit – which binds Maine federal courts with its decisions – never got to the last two questions because it didn't find Rivera-Ruperto's sentence to be “grossly disproportionate” to his crime.
This was due, in large part, to the fact that 130 years of Rivera-Ruperto's sentence were for violating 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(C), which makes it illegal to carry a gun while also committing a drug offense, six times. One of the big factors in determining if a sentence is “grossly disproportionate” is whether there's a valid reason for the law's sentencing provisions. The First Circuit decided that there was one – to keep guns and drugs separate. The Circuit Court also noted that no sentence under §924 had ever been found to violate the Eighth Amendment, and not for lack of trying: Sentences of 107 years, 132 years, 147 years, and 155 years had been upheld in the past for §924 violations.
Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
Decisions like these are scary. First Circuit binds the federal court in Maine, so this ruling makes Eighth Amendment claims for §924 violations far more difficult. The case also showcases how draconian drug and gun laws can be.