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What is the 8th Amendment? - Definition, Summary & Cases

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  • 0:00 Definition of the 8th…
  • 1:17 Historical Background
  • 3:06 Excessive Fines Clause
  • 4:22 Cases Related to the…
  • 7:14 What Is Cruel &…
  • 7:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is one of the shortest amendments, but its interpretation has caused many debates. In this lesson, we'll review how the Supreme Court has interpreted its various clauses.

Definition of the Eighth Amendment

In 1994, Denis McGuire was convicted of the rape and murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman. For his crime, he received the death sentence in the Ohio State Prison. In January of 2014, he was executed by the state of Ohio using a new combination of lethal drugs that were untested. During his execution, McGuire's body convulsed for 20 minutes, and his breathing was heavy as he obviously appeared to slowly be suffocating.

The question arises then, did McGuire's execution, which many observers described as disturbing, constitute a break of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution? The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution states:

'Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.'

The amendment is meant to safeguard Americans against excessive punishments. The vagueness of its wording, however, has become a major issue of debate and interpretation in the Supreme Court. When is bail excessive? When have fines become excessive? What constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment? When can the death penalty be applied? Do state courts have to apply the Eighth Amendment also? These questions have all arisen and have required the Supreme Court to interpret them.

Historical Background

The framers of the Constitution borrowed the Eighth Amendment almost word-for-word from English common law. The English common law version began after the trial of Titus Oates. Oates was a gossip and had developed a reputation of falsely accusing people. Sometimes people were even executed because of his lies. The king of England wanted to make an example out of Oates to dissuade others from lying in court.

Every year, Oates would be tied to a post in public and whipped brutally for two straight days, and then tied to a mobile cart where he was whipped across town for one more day. The brutality of the punishment was so harsh that Parliament passed a law urging that such violent punishments no longer be inflicted by the king.

The historical tradition started by the Oates case in England deeply influenced the framers of the Constitution. George Mason and Patrick Henry proposed the Eighth Amendment to make sure that Congress could not impose harsh punishments for crime. It passed as part of the original Bill of Rights.

Excessive Bail Clause

If you ever watch the show Law and Order, you know that one of the recurring fights between prosecutors and defense attorneys is how much the defendant's bail should be set at. The prosecutor always asks for bail to be set high, and the defense attorney always objects. The source of this dramatic moment is actually the Eighth Amendment.

According to the Constitution, a criminal justice court cannot charge excessive bail. But, what does that mean? This came under question in Stack v. Boyle (1951). In this case, the Supreme Court said that bail should be determined by two things: how much money a defendant has and how likely a person is to flee before trial. Thus, if a defendant is richer, he or she should expect to pay more money to be released. This does not mean, however, that a person accused of a serious crime will be released on bail. In such cases, they can be held until they are no longer deemed a threat to public security.

Excessive Fines Clause

Don't you just hate speeding tickets? Sometimes, the fines on the ticket seem just excessive! Despite your own personal opinion, it is very unlikely that the Supreme Court will overturn your fine as excessive. That is because the Court has only overturned an excessive fine once in its long history.

The standard for overturning a fine was set in 1909 when the Court heard Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas. In this case, the Court determined that a fine would only be excessive if it resulted in deprivation of property without due process of law. In other words, a fine is only excessive if there is not a pre-existing law specifying the nature of the fine, and the fine is so excessive that it takes away a person's property. Such strict limitations have made it difficult for anyone to have his or her fines ruled unconstitutional.

The only Supreme Court case where a fine has been deemed unconstitutional was in U.S. v. Bajakajian. Here, the Supreme Court ruled that the fine ($357,144) for not declaring money over $10,000 that was taken out of the country was excessive because it amounted to all the money that the defendant tried to take out. Thus, the fine has to 'be grossly disproportional to the offense' to be unconstitutional.

Cases Related to the Eighth Amendment

The Death Penalty Freeze: Furman v. Georgia (1972)

Perhaps the most controversial issue in which the Eighth Amendment comes into play is the death penalty. This was highlighted by a famous Supreme Court case, Furman v. Georgia. William Henry Furman was convicted of killing a resident of a Georgia home during a robbery. Furman's conviction was mainly based on his own confession in which he said the gun went off accidentally. Furthermore, there is some evidence that Furman was mentally challenged. After just a one-day trial, Furman was convicted and sentenced to death.

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