A 37-year old man has been indicted for the drug crimes sale of a controlled substance and heroin possession. Under the revised criminal laws relating to drug crimes, each of the crime charged is classified as an A–III felony, punishable by an indeterminate term of imprisonment, the minimum period of which, for a first offender, is from one to eight and one-third years, and the maximum of which is life imprisonment.
The accused demanded for the dismissal of his indictment based on constitutional grounds. The accused specifically assailed the validity of certain criminal laws on the ground that these provisions do violence to his due process and equal protection rights and that they are inconsistent with the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the Federal and New York Constitutions.
According to the court, the gist of the accused’s cruel and unusual punishment claim is that the penalty which has been legislatively imposed and must be judicially imposed, if there is a conviction, is too harsh for the alleged drug crimes. The accused argued that the quantities of heroin involved here are minute and that the entire amount of his gain from each of the transactions with which he is charged was $60.
The court, applying several tests, concluded that the maximum sentence of life imprisonment which the accused will be confronted with, if convicted, is neither so inherently severe nor excessive as to violate the Eighth Amendment. The sentence affords an offender the opportunity to minimize his term of imprisonment by rehabilitating himself to the point that the parole board, in the exercise of discretion, permits him to serve a part of that term outside of the prison walls. In this regard, the fact that an offender sentenced under the penalty provisions attacked by the accused must serve the minimum term imposed, before release on parole becomes a possibility, does not give rise to a valid Eighth Amendment claim.
Secondly, the court said the indeterminate sentence of imprisonment prescribed by statute for the A–III felonies of which the accused stands accused may not be said to have been imposed arbitrarily by the Legislature within the meaning of the constitutional prohibition which comes into play here. For years, the evils of drug abuse and narcotics traffic have occasioned the grave concern of government.
The very drug crime classification and sentencing provisions which the accused so stridently objects to reflect no more than a legislative awareness that earlier and less stringment measures had failed to deter illicit drug traffic and the heinous crimes that it spawns.
The mere fact that, in beefing up the penalties for violation of the narcotics laws, the Legislature allowed more lenient sentences for offenses deemed by some to represent a greater evil, does not convert the penalties under fire in this case into cruel and inhuman punishments, the court concluded.
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