What's at Stake
Whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States, and therefore prohibits not only federal, but also state and local, fines, fees and forfeitures that are excessive.
The United States has experienced an unprecedented and extraordinary rise in fines, fees, and forfeitures by state and local governments over the past three decades with devastating impacts on individuals, their families, and society at large. Timbs v. Indiana involves a challenge to the State of Indiana’s forfeiture of the vehicle of an individual convicted of drug offenses. While the state’s lower courts found the seizure to violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines, the Indiana Supreme Court refused to reach the question on the basis that the U.S. Supreme Court has not explicitly ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause applies against the States.
In an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU, the R Street Institute, the Fines and Fees Justice Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center provide context necessary to resolve the specific question raised by Timbs—whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States and therefore prohibits state and local fines, fees, and forfeitures that are excessive. We argue that the right to freedom from excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures—like the rights to be free from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment—is deeply rooted in American traditions and should be held enforceable against States. Our brief provides concrete data about the rise in state and local fines, fees, and forfeitures, and how excessive financial penalties have generated financial incentives for abuse and undermined public safety.
Across the United States, fines, fees, and forfeitures have multiplied due to a quest to generate revenue and to fund state and local justice systems, burying people under mountains of accumulating debt. Because poor and low-income people often cannot immediately pay steep fines and fees or sustain asset forfeiture, these economic burdens can severely disrupt their ability to provide for themselves and their families, and lead to a host of collateral harms—wage garnishment, loss of employment and housing, poor credit ratings, driver’s license suspension, incarceration, prohibitions on the right to vote, and even family separation.
We argue that the increasing use of state and local fines, fees, and forfeitures to generate revenue also perverts the goals of the justice system and harms society at large. Financial incentives driving these penalties contribute to abuse and undermine the reintegration of people involved in the criminal justice system into families and communities. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 report on the Ferguson Police Department, for example, highlighted Ferguson’s dependence on fines and fees for revenue and the resulting misdirection of policing and chronic violations of First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Our brief explains that Ferguson is not alone; the overreliance of state and local governments and justice-system stakeholders on fine and fee revenue creates powerful incentives to impose and collect excessive monetary penalties—regardless of an individual’s inability to pay—and has resulted in abusive conduct, including the use of arrest and jail to collect money from impoverished people.
The Excessive Fines Clause provides an essential safeguard against severe monetary sanctions and asset seizures. The Framer’s expressly intended the clause to shield people from the potentially devastating monetary sanctions and forfeitures the government could otherwise impose. In particular, it was designed to prevent penalties that would be disproportionate to the gravity of an offense or would deprive people of their livelihood.
The Supreme Court should therefore make clear, we argue, that the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to the States, making this important check available against state and local practices that result in excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures.