Reining In Excessive Fines

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” — imposes limits on the abilities of state and local governments to seize assets and property and impose financial penalties.  And the Court’s ruling applying the “excessive fines” clause of the amendment to state and local governments was a unanimous one, which is a welcome development in our era of increasingly divided politics.

gettyimages-1066751830The case involved an Indiana man who was arrested for selling several hundred dollars’ worth of heroin, had his $42,000 Range Rover seized as part of the process — even though the maximum fine for his crime was $10,000 — and sued to get his car back.  The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the states, even though the “excessive bail” and “cruel and unusual punishment” clauses have long been applied to the states.  The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, disagreed.

The decision yesterday addresses a significant real world issue — namely, how far can states and local governments go in imposing monetary penalties and seizing property from people who violate the law . . . or, in some cases, are only accused of violating the law.  Because raising taxes isn’t popular with voters, state and local governments have increasingly looked to aggressive forfeiture practices to fund part of their operations.  Briefs filed in the Supreme Court noted that more than half of municipal and county agencies who participated in a survey said reliance on forfeiture profits was a “necessary” part of their budgets, and that, in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures. And the aggressive penalties aren’t limited to drug offenses.  One brief in the Supreme Court, for example, described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California results in another $390 in fees.

In holding that the excessive fines clause applies to the states and local governments, Justice Ginsberg noted that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” and added:  “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Now that the states know that they can’t impose excessive fines, it will be up to the courts to determine whether the aggressive property forfeiture and fining practices, like the seizure of the Range Rover, are “excessive” or not.  We’ll have to see how that works out, but for now it’s nice to know that Americans have another constitutional protection against potentially overreaching governmental actions.

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