How Much is Too Much? A Test to Protect Against Excessive Fines
45 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2020 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020
Date Written: March 8, 2020
Fines are the most common form of punishment in the United States, and are disparately imposed against poor people of color. The stories of fines ruining lives abound. Yet until last year, in most state courts, it was not clear whether a person could challenge financial punishment imposed against them as unconstitutional. That changed when the Supreme Court held in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states.
Despite the fact that all state and federal courts must now be equipped to decide whether financial punishment violates the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court has not provided a concrete test for deciding whether a fine is constitutionally excessive. It has only said that a fine is excessive if it is “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of the offense.
This article provides the guidance lacking in the Court’s case law by supplementing the grossly disproportional test. After examining the Court’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, it offers four factors for courts to consider when deciding whether a fine is excessive:
(1) whether the defendant is able to pay the fine;
(2) whether fines are a significant revenue source in the sentencing jurisdiction;
(3) whether other jurisdictions impose similar fines for similar crimes; and
(4) whether the sentencing jurisdiction disproportionately imposes fines against minority defendants.
As many courts decide for the first time whether fines are excessive, this article serves as a road-map to help guide the analysis.
Keywords: excessive fines clause, fines and fees
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