The South Carolina Supreme Court decided in State v. Harrison that 20 years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in a death was not cruel and unusual punishment for the purposes of the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The incident occurred in Greenwood County west of Columbia. Two motorcyclists were traveling down the left southbound lane of Highway 25, a four-lane road. They were riding tandem, with a bike’s length separation between them. Harrison, whose license was suspended, turned right onto the highway, moving into the left southbound lane, in front of the two motorcyclists. The first motorcyclist briefly lost control, while trying to avoid Harrison’s truck, and shifted into the right lane. Harrison also moved back into the right lane. The truck and the first bike collided. That biker ended up flipping over and was left in the road. Harrison did not stop and continued driving down the highway. The second biker followed him. Eventually Harrison stopped. The second biker told him that the first was lying in the road, maybe dead. Harrison inspected the truck and said he would return to the scene. He did not return, and never did. The first motorcycle rider did in fact die. South Carolina imposes a duty on drivers involved in an accident to give reasonable assistance to those injured in the accident (e.g., calling 911 or driving them to a hospital).
The state did not charge Harrison with reckless vehicular homicide, which requires reckless conduct and carries a maximum of 10 years (SC Code § 56-5-2910), but leaving the scene of an accident, § 15-5-1210, and driving under suspension, § 56-1-0460. The jury convicted him, and the judge sentenced him to 20 years. The maximum sentence for leaving the scene of an accident when a death results is actually 25 years.
The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the sentence. The Court recited its restrictive scope of review in cases like this one:
This Court has a very limited scope of review in cases involving a constitutional challenge to a statute. Joytime Distrib. & Amusement Co. v. State, 338 S.C. 634, 640, 528 S.E. 2d 647, 651 (1999). All statutes are presumed constitutional and will, if possible, be c onstrued so as to render them valid. Davis v. Cnty. of Greenville, 332 S.C. 73, 77, 470 S.E.2d 94, 96 (1996). A legislative act will not be declared unconstitutional unless its repugnance to the constitution is clear beyond a reasonable doubt. Westvaco Corp. v. S.C. Dep’t of Revenue, 321 S.C. 59, 62, 467 S.E.2d 739, 741 (1995).
Without getting too deep into the brambles, the Court recognizes the rule in the Kennedy concurrence in Harmelin, i.e., “intrajurisdictional and interjurisdictional analyses are appropriate only in the rare case in which a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality,” Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1005 (1991), as the controlling law.
The Court decided the sentence was proportionate enough and cited the trial judge’s comments at sentencing as “the very embodiment of proportionality”: “I understand that there was no intent to cause this accident, I understand that you did not set out on this particular day to injure [the Victim] or anyone else, for that matter. The inescapable fact, though . . . is that in reality you caused this accident by being present where you had no business to be and that you were driving a car, sir . . . . I also have to consider your criminal history. I count [twenty-seven] offenses. A lot of these, I agree with your attorney, they happened when you were young and I understand . . . how young people can make mistakes . . . I just can’t disregard it . . . because you have demonstrated over and over again a pattern of being unable to not only obey the law but to stay out from behind the wheel of a car . . . . It is my job to take all of this into consideration and work out some sort of calculation, and I’m not all unsympathetic to the arguments of counsel that you are being punished far in excess.”
The Court noted that Harmelin stops the analysis at a finding of proportionality, but the Court continued to give guidance on the new analysis.
In intrajurisdictional analysis, the Court looked to reckless vehicular homicide, SC Code Ann. § 56-5-2910, and DUI involving great bodily injury or death, SC Code Ann. § 56-5-2945. Reckless vehicular homicide carries a maximum of 10 years prison, and no mandatory minimum term. DUI involving death carries one to 25 years. The Court points to the trial courts discretion in sentencing and concludes that a intrajurisdictional comparison does not support an inference of gross disproportionality.
The same is true of the interjurisdictional comparisons.
Georgia’s § 40-6-270 provides that leaving the scene of an accident, where the accident causes death, carries one to five years, but cross-references the Georgia vehicular homicide statute which provides three to 15 years, which the Court calls “not substantially different” from South Carolina’s statute. The Court provides less in depth analysis of other comparisons (only one other state, Wisconsin, was cited as having a 25 year maximum) and concludes that inter jurisdiction comparisons provide no inference of gross disproportionality.
Justice Pleicones concurred in judgment only. All others joined Chief Justice Toal.