Monday, August 31, 2015

Mandatory Life for Piracy Not Cruel & Unusual

US v. Said: Said was one of several defendants in this consolidated appeal that were convicted of piracy. The convictions arose from not one but two unsuccessful attempts to capture ships that, it turned out, were military craft (a Royal Navy frigate and a US Navy dock landing ship). The second attempt left the pirates' boat destroyed and the pirates in custody of the US Navy. They were brought to the Eastern District of Virginia and charged with (among other things) piracy on the high seas under 18 USC 1651 which carries a mandatory life sentence. After unsuccessfully trying to dismiss that charge (for reasons explained here), Said and all but one of the other pirates were convicted at trial. However, the district court concluded that a life sentence in this case violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and imposed various terms of months on the defendants. The Government appealed.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentences and remanded the case for the imposition of life sentences. The court concluded that Said couldn't make it past the first prong of the Supreme Court's test for non-capital Eighth Amendment sentences, that "the gravity of the offense and the severity of the sentence produces an inference of gross disproportionality." It noted that the Supreme Court had only found one non-capital sentence to be grossly disproportionate (life as a recidivist after passing a bad check) and that the Fourth Circuit hasn't identified any such sentence since. The court rejected the argument that the defendants' conduct was merely "attempted robbery on the high seas" that didn't result in any serious injury or damage, noting that  it was "at least as severe as the cocaine possession" that the Supreme Court held could trigger a life sentence. The statutory life sentence "reflects a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference" about the danger posed by piracy.

Judge Davis concurred, suggesting that "not all piracy offense are equal in severity" and that Congress might revisit the issue.

No comments: