September 12, 2018

PLF asks Supreme Court to give homeowners meaningful protection from excessive fines

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Our friends at Institute for Justice have convinced the Supreme Court to soon decide in the case Timbs v. Indiana whether the Constitution restrains states (and not just the federal government) from imposing excessive fines. This case started when the State of Indiana  attempted to take Mr. Timbs’s Land Rover, on top of other punishments, for his violation of a drug law.  But as we explain in our friend-of-the-court brief, it is not just common criminals who need protection from excessive fines.  State and local governments often impose excessive fines against responsible individuals who violate codes that regulate innocuous activities like residential landscaping choices or minor home improvements.

When a Missouri city fines a homeowner $180,000 for choosing to plant flowers instead of grass, or a Florida city fines a homeowner $58,000 for failing to register a burglar alarm with a local bureaucrat, alarm bells go off in most people’s minds. Government violates a natural right when it responds to minor violations of the law with such excess.  Yet in both cases, the respective courts just shrugged.

The lack of meaningful protection from excessive fines should trouble every responsible American.  The power to fine threatens other constitutional rights.  For example, PLF clients often must risk huge fines to stand up for their property rights or free speech rights, for example, to “fight city hall.” Many other people understandably will give up their rights to avoid ruinous fines.

When fines subsidize the enforcing agency’s budget, local officials have an incentive to pick the harshest penalty available under law, regardless of the gravity of the offense.  This perverse incentive is particularly visible in communities that have struggled to balance their budgets.

PLF client Uri Rafaeli lost a house (and all of its equity) when he accidentally underpaid property taxes by $8. While we think the seizure violates the Constitution’s prohibition on taking private property without just compensation, Oakland County, Michigan, argues that it is a fair punishment for Mr. Rafaeli’s $8 harm to the general welfare.  That Oakland County would attempt to hide from the Fifth Amendment’s Just Compensation Clause by framing its theft of Mr. Rafaeli’s equity in his house as a forfeiture—a type of fine—is a troubling commentary on how weak many lower courts have rendered the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.

As we explain in our friend-of-the-court-brief, the Supreme Court should take the opportunity presented by Timbs v. Indiana to show that a fine is not excessive merely because it exceeds the limits set by a state legislature or local commission; it is also excessive when it exceeds the limits of civilized society.

What to read next