In Ingraham v. Wight, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment does not apply in non-criminal cases. Due process is still required, but the Eighth Amendment does not apply.

Governments can and do impose disciplinary actions in non-criminal cases, with due process; for example, speeding tickets are generally not criminal cases. What stops a state from, for example, imprisoning drivers for life without parole for speeding tickets?

2 Answers 2


An incarceration punishment, almost by definition, make an offense a criminal one for constitutional law purposes. This is, for example, what triggers the right to counsel.

In its 1979 opinion in Scott v. Illinois, the Court held that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require only that no indigent criminal defendant be sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless the State has afforded him the right to assistance of appointed counsel in his defense. 440 U.S. 367, 373–74 (1979). In other words, the right to counsel hinges not on the possibility of imprisonment as authorized by the charging statute, but on the actual punishment imposed on the defendant. Id. Thus, Scott modified Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 32–33, 37 (1972), which had held counsel required if imprisonment were possible. The Court has also extended the right of assistance of counsel to juvenile proceedings. See In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 36–37 (1967) ([T]he assistance of counsel is . . . equally essential for the determination of delinquency, carrying with it the awesome prospect of incarceration in a state institution until the juvenile reaches the age of 21.).


There are some narrow exceptions (e.g., protective custody, custody as part of a quarantine, non-punitive contempt of court), but those each have their own internal logic limiting them.

For example, protective custody must end when the immediate threat ends. Quarantine is limited by medical scientific justification. Non-punitive contempt of court has to be possible to end, almost at the will of the incarcerated person, by complying with the court's order.

There are also constitutional limits on excessive fines, a principle made applicable to state and local governments in the case of Timbs v. Indiana.


The case you cite is very narrowly drawn, speaking only to the use of corporal punishment in schools, and justifying their conclusion by the long history of support in common law for corporal punishment in schools and specific enabling legislation in state law. It states that common law constraints on punishment in schools are the appropriate standard because schools are open institutions and except for very young children they are free to leave the school, and certainly free to return home at the end of the day.

Attaching a jail sentence to punishment for an infraction would be a very different matter. As stated in the opinion: "The prisoner and the schoolchild stand in wholly different circumstances, separated by the harsh facts of criminal conviction and incarceration." Throwing a jail sentence into the mix would eliminate the difference in circumstances.

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