People v. Bullock




Michigan Supreme Court

Citation and Year

485 N.W.2d 866 (1992)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

MICH. CONST. ART. I, § 16 (“cruel or unusual punishment shall not be inflicted”)

Nature of Case

In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court in Harmelin v. Michigan held that the 8th Amendment prohibits only prison terms that are “grossly disproportionate” to the offense, and upheld a Michigan statute that imposed a mandatory sentence of life without parole for possessing 650 grams of cocaine. In Bullock, the Michigan Supreme Court assessed the same sentencing statute under its state constitution’s antipunishment clause, which bars “cruel or unusual” punishments.


Michigan’s constitution provides broader protections against excessive prison terms than does the 8th Amendment, and a mandatory penalty of life without parole for possessing 650 grams of cocaine violated the Michigan constitution’s “cruel or unusual” punishment prohibition.


The Michigan Court interpreted the state constitution’s prohibition of cruel or unusual punishment more broadly than the 8th Amendment based primarily on (1) the textual difference between the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment and the state constitution’s prohibition of “cruel or unusual” punishment, noting that “‘significant textual difference [ ] between parallel provisions of the state and federal constitutions’ may constitute a ‘compelling reason’ for a different and broader interpretation of the state provision”; and (2) state history, including that the legal meaning of “cruel” and “unusual” had changed between the 1791 ratification of the 8th Amendment and the 1963 adoption of Art. 1 § 16 to the Michigan Constitution: “[By] 1963 [‘cruel’ and ‘unusual’] had been interpreted and understood by the United States Supreme Court and by this Court for more than half a century to include a prohibition on grossly disproportionate sentences.”

In finding that Bullock’s LWOP sentence violated the Michigan Constitution, the court applied its four-pronged test to analyze the proportionality of a sentence under the state constitution: (1) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (2) the sentences imposed for similar offenses in the jurisdiction; (3) the sentences imposed for the same offense in other jurisdictions; and (4) the goal of rehabilitation, which is “rooted in Michigan’s legal traditions.” In this case, the court said that holding people personally and morally responsible for the downstream consequences of drug possession is “profoundly unfair.” In considering the second proportionally prong, the court noted that “[t]he defendants in this case have been punished more severely than they could have been for second-degree murder, rape, mutilation, armed robbery, or other exceptionally grave and violent crimes.” Finally, the court noted that no other state imposed a penalty even remotely as severe as Michigan for the mere possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine.