The Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Wednesday barring all states from imposing excessive fines and seizing assets from those suspected or convicted of a crime.
The decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her first week back after cancer surgery, said that the 8th Amendment, which prohibits the government from issuing excessive fines, applies to all 50 states. The ruling limits state and local governments’ ability to impose harsh financial penalties and seize property from people convicted or even suspected of a crime.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “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.”
Groups like the ACLU praised the ruling for cracking down on what they call “policing for profit.”
Police increasingly relying on fines and seizures for funds:
The US Chamber of Commerce noted that a study found “60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a ‘necessary’ part of their budget.”
Scott Bullock, the president of the Institute for Justice, told The Washington Post that police are using asset seizure to pad their budgets.
“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” he said. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one.”
According to a brief submitted to the court by the ACLU, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees, and forfeitures. “It described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California carried an additional $390 in fees, and how New Jersey’s fine of $100 for marijuana possession could lead to a penalty of more than $1,000 for a poor person represented by a public defender,” The Post reported.
Supreme Court applying federal provisions to states:
“The Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects against actions of the federal government,” The Washington Post explained. “But the Supreme Court over time has applied its provisions to state and local governments under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. In 2010, for instance, the court held that the Second Amendment applied to state and local government laws on gun control.”
“The Eighth Amendment states: ‘Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.’” the report said. “Two of those commands — regarding bail and cruel and unusual punishments — have been deemed to apply to state and local governments. But until now, the ban on excessive fines had not.”