Unique Punishments Given By Judges: Is Humiliation Cruel and Unusual?

Recently a woman in Ohio was caught, first on videotape and then by a police officer, avoiding a school bus’ stop sign by driving onto the sidewalk.[1] She did not want to wait the extra minute for school children to safely get off the bus before continuing on her way.
Last month a Cleveland-area judge handed down her punishment.

While receiving the typical punishments of a $250 fine and 30-day driver’s license suspension, the woman also has to stand on the corner where she went off-roading and hold a sign that says “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus” for two days.

This is not the first time a judge has handed down a public shaming punishment. In April, a Texas judge forced a drunk driver to stand at the scene of his accident for a series of Saturdays admitting his guilt.[2] Judge Peter Miller, of Putnam County West Virginia, has handed down over 600 of these “public shaming” punishments including having individuals stand outside the local Walmart with “I steal” signs.[3] In Judge Miller’s courtroom, individuals are given the option of a 30-60 day jail sentence or public humiliation along with probation and a fine. In Ohio, teens had to stand on the street corner with a pig and a sign that said “This is not a police officer” after calling the local police officers “pigs.”[4]
Public shaming is not a new form of punishment, but it has been reinvented for the modern age.  In colonial times, individuals were placed in stocks in the center of town for varying lengths of time depending on the punishment.[5]
No one wants the entire world to know what he or she did wrong. Teenagers particularly spend a great deal of their lives attempting to avoid high school humiliation, and these types of punishments put them on display for their entire town.
It has not been determined whether public shaming punishments are a better deterrence to crime than jail time, fines, or probation. However, it may be a better deterrence for individuals who see the person holding the sign. No one wants to be that person.
Some ask if these punishments are illegal. Under the United States Constitution, punishment is illegal if it is “cruel and unusual.”[6] Throughout our nation, the death penalty is employed to punish those who kill. Therefore, forcing an individual to hold a sign for a few hours or a couple of days does not amount to any “cruel” punishment.
This sign holding is typically only used in small misdemeanor crimes and would appear to be an softer punishment than going to jail. This punishment may be seen as an “unusual” one, but it does not seem as though it would rise to the level of unconstitutionality.
However, none of the individuals who received these punishments have challenged their validity. This could be because they know they will lose, or because they have accepted their fate for breaking the law. Either way, this type of punishment is on the rise, and may help deter future infractions. Be on the lookout for a public shaming near you.



[1]   http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-buzz/sidewalk-driving-woman-ordered-wear-idiot-sign-punishment-145629195.html
[2]   http://now.msn.com/judge-sentences-drunken-driver-to-public-humiliation
[3]   http://lawvibe.com/get-caught-stealing-and-face-public-humiliation/
[4]   http://lawvibe.com/get-caught-stealing-and-face-public-humiliation/
[5]   http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring03/branks.cfm

[6]   http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html

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