Eleventh Circuit Reverses Judge Martin’s District Court Decision that a 30-Year Mandatory Minimum Sentence was Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Last week, a panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits here in Atlanta, Georgia, reversed a decision by the newest member of their Court, Judge Beverly Martin. Prior to her appointment to the Eleventh Circuit, Judge Martin was a district court judge here in the Northern District of Georgia. As a member of that court, in U.S. v. Farley, she decided that a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for a man who crossed state lines with the intent to have sex with a child under twelve was cruel and unusual punishment where the “child” did not exist and the defendant had no criminal history and was unlikely to re-offend.

The Eleventh Circuit held that such a sentence “does not surpass constitutional bounds” under Harmelin v. Michigan, a Supreme Court case that was never brought to Judge Martin’s attention in the lower court. In reversing the District Court decision that Farley’s mandatory sentence would be grossly disproportionate to his crime, the Eleventh Circuit analyzed Harmelin in detail. The Court emphasized that, under Harmelin, “outside the context of capital punishment, successful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences are exceedingly rare” and noted that the Eleventh Circuit “has never found a term of imprisonment to violate the Eighth Amendment.” Harmelin also held that the mandatory nature of a penalty is not an Eighth Amendment issue.

The Eleventh Circuit stressed the gravity of crimes involving sexual abuse of children. Incredibly, the Court compared the fiction of the child’s existence to the seizure of drugs by police: according to the Court, in both cases, the defendant is unable to inflict harm through no fault of his own.

For more information on the details of this case, Judge Martin’s decision below, and the Eleventh Circuit opinion, this Daily Report article discusses the case at length.

The Eleventh Circuit’s 112-page opinion in U.S. v. Farley is available here. We should caution that the opinion contains a fair amount of graphic detail.