Unconstitutional Penalties

When we hear of unconstitutional penalties, most of us immediately think of the the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.” But a statute itself can be unconstitutional if the penalties imposed are disparate and there is no reasonable legislative objective to warrant the disparate treatment of offenders. In Utah, “[a]ll laws of a general nature shall have uniform operation.” Utah Const. art. I, § 24. This provision is comparable to the guarantee of due process under federal law.

Recently, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled that the stiff penalties under Utah’s Controlled Substance Act, which criminalize having “any measurable amount” of a controlled substance in your body, are unconstitutional. The essence of the ruling is that there is no “rational basis for punishing individuals who have ‘any measurable amount’ of controlled substance in their bodies more harshly than individuals who have an incapacitating amount of the substance in their bodies.” The court went on to rule that there is no “rational basis for charging users of nonprescribed Schedule I or II controlled substances who have a measurable amount of controlled substance in their body, but not enough to render them incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle, with a higher-degree crime than users of nonprescribed Schedule I or II controlled substances who have so much controlled substance in their body that they are demonstrably unsafe to operate a vehicle.”

This ruling may affect Utah’s current statutes regarding the presence of cannabis metabolites in the body. If you want to read more about this topic, I recommend a great article by Josh Daniels (found here) that discusses the ruling in that context.

 

About Robert Avery

Rob is a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark law school at Brigham Young University and practices primarily in criminal defense, general litigation, and general business representation. Rob is a founding partner of the Pacific Legal Group. He is also an adjunct professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School and an accomplished writer. Rob is married and has four children and three grandchildren.