Supreme Court vindicates all Americans’ right to be free from excessive fines

February 20, 2019 | By CHRISTINA MARTIN
excessive fines

Today the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from excessive fines by all levels of government in this country—not just the federal government. The decision in this case, Timbs v. Indiana, is a significant victory that limits the abusive use of fees and fines by state and local officials—abuse that frequently targets the most vulnerable in society.

This case, litigated by our friends at Institute for Justice, started when the State of Indiana tried to take Tyson Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover, on top of other punishments, for his violation of a drug law. Yet the maximum fine in cases like Timbs’s is $10,000 in Indiana.

Recognizing this obvious disparity, the trial court and court of appeal found that the confiscation of Timbs’s vehicle would violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection from excessive fines. But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed those decisions, holding that the U.S. Constitution does not protect individuals from excessive fines imposed by state or local government actors.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously held that because the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is a fundamental right, with deep roots in American history, that it restrains all levels of American government.

Writing for eight justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained that those deep roots extend to at least 1215 England, at the adoption of Magna Carta, which “required that economic sanctions ‘be proportioned to the wrong’ and ‘not be so large as to deprive [an offender] of his livelihood.’”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that English courts for hundreds of years enforced the same principle that a financial punishment must fit the crime. And in fact, the right was recognized even before even Magna Carta.

The English Bill of Rights, adopted in 1689, reiterated that historical ban on excessive fines, by providing that “excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual Punishments inflicted.”

This protection carried over to the colonies and into the founding of this nation. The Eighth Amendment cemented the prohibition. Likewise, most state constitutions at the founding (and all state constitutions today) forbade excessive fines.

Nevertheless, the Eighth Amendment itself only restrained the federal government from violating individual rights. It was not until the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, shortly after the Civil War, that the constitutional protection (along with most of the Bill of Rights) also restrained state governments.

One of the major reasons for the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment was that some southern states were imposing excessive fines on freed slaves. Plainly then, the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted to ensure that states could not impose excessive fines.

Unfortunately, as we explained in our amicus brief, despite the historical protection, many state governments today impose outrageous fines, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, for small offenses—with the burden frequently falling on citizens who can least afford to pay. Consider the following examples:

  • One Missouri city fined a homeowner $180,000 for choosing to plant flowers instead of grass.
  • A Florida homeowner faced municipal fines of $58,000 for failing to register a burglar alarm with a local bureaucrat.
  • PLF clients faced fines of $100 per day—exceeding $10,000 in just a short time—for their home’s Van Gogh style mural
  • In California, PLF clients Henny and Warren Lent face over $4 million in fines for blocking an unusable public access easement.

Today’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward ending the kind of fines presently imposed for even non-criminal offenses by many states. All Americans, especially our friends at Institute for Justice who fought this battle, should be proud.