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Intellectual Disabilities Must Be Considered in Oregon Proportionality Challenges

by Mark Wilson

The Oregon Supreme Court held that a defendant’s intellectual disabilities must be considered when deciding whether a mandatory minimum sentence is disproportionate under the Oregon and United States Constitutions.

On July 15, 2013, Steven Ryan sexually abused 9-year old and 14-year old sisters. He was 23 years old at the time. He pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse, which carries a mandatory 75-month prison term.

At sentencing, Ryan argued that the mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutionally disproportionate, as applied to him, due to his intellectual disabilities. Four psychological evaluations conducted between 2008 and 2013 found significant impairment in Ryan’s adaptive functioning. One of those evaluations scored Ryan’s IQ at 50, while another scored his IQ at 60. The uncontested evidence before the court was that Ryan functioned at an approximate mental age of a ten-year old, which is two years below the minimum age for establishing criminal responsibility of a child under Oregon law.

The trial court recognized that Ryan was intellectually disabled. Nevertheless, without indicating whether it had considered Ryan’s intellectual disability in reaching its conclusion, the court concluded that the mandatory 75-month prison term was not disproportionate as applied to Ryan.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction without opinion, but the Oregon Supreme Court reversed. Since “no Oregon case has specifically addressed the” proportionality of “a sentence for a crime committed by an intellectually disabled offender,” the Oregon Supreme Court adopted the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court’s death penalty decisions in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002); Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986 (2014); and Moore v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 1039 (2017), which discuss “relevant considerations in proportionality challenges by intellectually disabled offenders….” 

“Evidence of an offender’s intellectual relevant to a proportionality determination where sentencing laws require the imposition of a term of imprisonment without consideration of such evidence,” the Court explained. It concluded that “where the issue is presented, a sentencing court must consider an offender’s intellectual disability in comparing the gravity of the offense and the severity of a mandatory prison sentence on such an offender in a proportionality analysis….”

Given that “there exists a broad spectrum of intellectual disabilities that may reduce, but not erase, a person’s responsibility for her crimes,” the Court found that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.”

Oregon’s high court found that “the undisputed evidence at sentencing showed that defendant is an intellectually disabled offender who has an IQ score between 50 and 60, a full ten to twenty points below the cutoff IQ score for the intellectual function prong of the intellectual disability definition recognized in Hall.” Additionally, “it is undisputed that defendant has significantly impaired adaptive functioning, such that he functions—as it pertains to standards of maturation, learning, personal independence, and social responsibility—at an approximate mental age of 10, two years below the minimum age for establishing criminal responsibility of a child under Oregon law.”

For the foregoing reasons, the Court held “that the trial court erred … in failing to consider evidence of defendant’s intellectual disability when that evidence, if credited, would establish that the sentence would be arguably unconstitutional….” The 75-month sentence was vacated, and the case remanded for resentencing consistent with the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision. See: State v. Ryan, 396 P.3d 867 (Or. 2017). 

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Related legal case

State v. Ryan



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