Public Justice and others challenging the criminalization of poverty have long been focused on constitutional claims designed to halt the jailing of indigent people, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Bearden v. Georgia, which held that the government may not fine a person and then “imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it.”
But debt imposed through the criminal process can have devastating consequences beyond jail. The inability to pay fines can also lead to suspension of a driver’s license, the loss of public benefits, and the deprivation of important civil rights. Individuals who face fines and fees may even forgo basic needs, miss bills, or borrow at high interest rates in ways that will impact future financial stability.
The Bill of Rights contains an express protection against these types of government practices: The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against “excessive fines imposed,” a constitutional protection commonly referred to as the Excessive Fines Clause. Unfortunately, however, the Excessive Fines Clause’s protections are rarely invoked. The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed whether a fine is “excessive” only once, and few lower courts have addressed how the Excessive Fines Clause might apply to the fines and fees discussed above. Many fines and fees are imposed in situations when a person does not have a right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. Even when legal counsel is available, the cumulative effect of many fines and fees becomes “excessive” many months after the financial penalties have been imposed, after a public defender is no longer in the picture.
At Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project, we believe that the Excessive Fines Clause has the potential—largely untapped—to be a powerful tool in the fight against unfair fines and fees. We are developing cases to encourage courts to grapple with the Excessive Fines Clause as a protection against unpayable criminal legal debt.