Supreme Court steps in to halt states' predatory fines

Supreme Court steps in to halt states' predatory fines
© Greg Nash

In a unanimous ruling in Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court decided that “exorbitant tolls” cannot be used to fine people or seize property from those accused of a crime.

For the millions of Americans who owe tens of billions of dollars in court debt, this could dramatically change rules that have created a system of modern-day debtors’ prisons across the country by trapping the poor in a vicious cycle of court fees, fines and excessive cash bail. 

The defendant, Tyson Timbs, was ordered as part of a criminal sentence to pay $1,203 in court costs and fees. When he could not pay, a judge ordered his $42,000 Land Rover seized under a process called civil asset forfeiture. After Timbs argued that the action constituted an excessive fine, which is explicitly banned by the Eighth Amendment, the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that the U.S. Constitution did not apply.

On appeal, the Supreme Court concluded otherwise. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court held it is “fundamental” to liberty to protect against excessive fines, and a state cannot circumvent the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment by renaming a criminal fine a civil forfeiture, or by seizing a vehicle in lieu of currency. 

In the opinion, Ginsburg also connected excessive fines to the violation of other civil rights, describing how the civil rights amendments to the Constitution were adopted to end cruel fines imposed to coerce money or free labor from newly freed slaves. 

Today, excessive fines play out not just in civil forfeiture, but in many other areas in our criminal justice system. Take probation, which some people turn down to instead serve jail time because they know they cannot pay the excessive fees charged for release in the community. Or take the broken system of cash bail, in which those who can afford bail are released from jail to await trial while those who cannot are left there.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 70 percent of inmates in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. Most of those sitting in jail do so because they can’t afford bail. Countless others plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they cannot afford bail or fines and fees imposed by a judge, and see no other way to return to their jobs and families. 

Driver license suspension is another widely-used tool used to try to coerce fines and fees. At Duke Law School, my colleagues and I have been studying the cases of the 1.2 million North Carolinians whose driver licenses have been suspended — more than one out of seven adult drivers. About a quarter of those people lost their licenses because they did not — or could not — pay traffic costs, fines and fees. Taking away a driver’s license is not only an excessive response, but it also severely hampers a person’s ability to get to work, making it more likely that he or she will fall further into debt.

In its opinion, the court did not dictate what standard will be used to decide whether a fine is excessive, and prior rulings have said little on the subject. Until that is determined, defendants will have to argue that the penalty is excessive, or grossly out of proportion to, what they can pay or what is justified. They may also argue that state or local governments are using fines as a source of revenue.

Many years of litigation will undoubtedly follow the Timbs decision, but in the near term it will affect court challenges already underway in many states, including cases challenging drivers’ license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees in California, North Carolina, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington. Last year, nearly 300,000 people in Tennessee became eligible to have their licenses reinstated after a federal judge intervened.

That the entire court — conservatives and liberals alike — signed on to the Timbs opinion is a sharp repudiation of policies playing out in communities all across America. The Timbs ruling is one constitutional step toward ending these longstanding practices that harm all of us but are especially predatory toward those who can least afford it.

Brandon Garrett is the L. Neil Williams professor of law at Duke University School of Law. His most recent book is “End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.