Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Eighth Amendment Definition:

US constitutional amendment that prohibits "excessive bail (or) fines (and) cruel and unusual punishment...."

Related Terms: Due Process, Fourteenth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, First Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Sixth Amendment, Cruel and Unusual Punishment

US flagUS constitutional amendment that prohibits "excessive bail, ...excessive fines (and) cruel and unusual punishment...."

The actual text of the Amendment is:

"Eighth Amendment - Further Guarantees in Criminal Cases: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The amendment has been the subject of many cases brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, perhaps none more important than the 1958 case Trop v Dulles, for which the formal citation is 356 US 86.

ball and chainIn that landmark case, the Supreme Court of the United States wrote as follows:

"Let us put to one side the death penalty as an index of the constitutional limit on punishment.  Whatever the arguments may be against capital punishment, both on moral grounds and in terms of accomplishing the purposes of punishment - and they are forceful - the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.

"But it is equally plain that the existence of the death penalty is not a license to the Government to devise any punishment short of death within the limit of its imagination.

"The exact scope of the constitutional phrase 'cruel and unusual' has not been detailed by this Court (b)ut the basic policy reflected in these words is firmly established in the Anglo-American tradition of criminal justice.

"The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards.

"Fines, imprisonment and even execution may be imposed depending upon the enormity of the crime, but any technique outside the bounds of these traditional penalties is constitutionally suspect.

"This Court has had little occasion to give precise content to the Eighth Amendment, and, in an enlightened democracy such as ours, this is not surprising.  But when the Court (in Weems v US 217 US 349) was confronted with a punishment of twelve years in irons at hard and painful labor imposed for the crime of falsifying public records, it did not hesitate to declare that the penalty was cruel in its excessiveness and unusual in its character.

"(T)he words of the (Eighth) Amendment are not precise, and that their scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

The American text was inspired directly from the text of the 1689 English Bill of Rights which read, inter alia:

"That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

Canada has a similar protection in its charter of rights and freedoms, ¶11 and 12, this from ¶12:

"Everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."

The European Convention on Human Rights has several similar provisions particularly Article 3:

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

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