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Supreme Court Rules Constitution's Excessive-Fines Clause Applies to States


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Eighth Amendment's bar against excessive fines applies to the states, a decision that may reel in what some advocates say is a growing trend of fines and fees levied against juveniles, sometimes stemming from school incidents.

"Juvenile justice fines are widespread, imposed against children and their families in all 50 states," said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and 40 other juvenile justice and youth advocacy groups in Timbs v. Indiana (Case No. 17-1091).

The case before the court involved not a juvenile but an Indiana man, Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover SUV was seized by the state after Timbs was arrested on charges of dealing heroin.

Timbs pleaded guilty to one count of dealing and one count of theft, and he was sentenced to six years, with one year to be served in home detention and five years probation, plus about $1,200 in fines and court costs. But the state hired a private law firm to institute a civil law proceeding for the forfeiture of Timbs's vehicle.

Two Indiana courts held that the seizure was disproportionate to the maximum fine Timbs could have faced, about $10,000. But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and held that the excessive-fines clause in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had never been incorporated, or applied, against the states.

The excessive-fines clause is one of the few protections of the Bill of Rights that have not been incorporated against the states.

Writing for eight members of the court in the Feb. 20 decision, Justice Ruth Bader said the excessive-fines clause met the legal test for application to the states.

"Like the Eighth Amendment's proscriptions of cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail, the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government's punitive or criminal-law-enforcement authority," Ginsburg said. "This safeguard, we hold, is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty, with deep roots in our history and tradition."

Ginsburg briefly noted concerns that fines have become a source of revenue for state and local governments, and she rejected Indiana's arguments that the excessive-fines clause may not be incorporated against the states with respect to the type of civil forfeiture used against Timbs.

Ginsburg's opinion was signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh, with Gorsuch issuing a brief concurrence.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who in 2017 expressed concerns in an opinion that modern civil forfeiture practices have "led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses," concurred in the outcome, but wrote an opinion that said he would have based the decision to incorporate the excessive-fines clauses on the "privileges or immunites" clause of the 14th Amendment rather than the amendment's due-process clause. 

(The decision is not yet a total victory for Timbs, who must renew his efforts in the Indiana courts to reverse the seizure of his vehicle.)

Juvenile Justice Concerns

Although the opinions did not directly address the concerns raised about juvenile justice fines, the Juvenile Law Center's brief in support of incorporating the excessive-fines clause cited several examples of youths who faced excessive juvenile justice fines after incidents that began at school.

One 16-year-old Philadelphia girl got into a fight at school while trying to protect her brother from bullying and ended up getting three years probation in the juvenile justice system. At the end of that three years, the brief said, the girl was informed she could close her case only if she paid $420 in fines. Because she did not have they money, she had to serve another year of probation.

"Juvenile justice fines also lead to youth incarceration," the brief said, citing the case of a 13-year-old Arkansas youth who reported having to spend three months in a locked juvenile facility because he could not pay a $500 fine for truancy from school.

The law center's brief also details concerns about juvenile justice fines aggravating racial disparities in the system, and about juveniles or their families having to pay the costs of incarceration.

After Wednesday's decision in the Timbs case, the Juvenile Law Center tweeted, "This is a victory in the fight for #debtfreejustice. ... We are thrilled to hear this news."

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