Today a headline in an United States newspaper (Washington Post) reported that the United States Supreme Court had ruled that excessive fines imposed by a State were unconstitutional.
Your eyes are now glazing over. Your brain is trying to shut down. The thought is “Not more legal mumbo-jumbo from the States!”
But this s a BIG DEAL.
First and foremost, it stops a practice that one Prosecuting Attorney that I worked with 30 years ago called, “Legal thievery”. He said that with glee. That it made him happy to steal from some suspected drug dealer and never have to worry about whether they were guilty or innocent. “It’s the law so my conscience is clear.” He actually said that.
During that same time period, there was a local judge that enthusiastically ordered the transfer of an inmates “jail fund” to the State to reduce the fines imposed. He made the mistake of doing that to a gusty, aged man.
The man had pled guilty to manslaughter. He was an aged, homeless man who was rarely sober. He remembered nothing of the night in question. He did not remember ever speaking to the person that was the victim. The evidence against him was very slim. But he did not want to go to trial because he knew his brain was failing and he believed that prison would give him the only chance to stay sober, if only for a little while.
His life story was tragic and his reasoning very flawed but the decision was his to make.
At sentencing the judge (noted above) attempted to order the man’s meager jail fund be forfeited to the State. Counsel objected. (Vociferously, citing applicable law and all that other stuff). The judge relieved that appointed attorney and ordered them to leave the courtroom. He then turned to the man and told him of the forfeiture. He did not appoint new counsel. The man stood there, in a crowded courtroom, alone.
“Don’t you think that is fair, Mr. X?”
“No, sir. That is not fair. I need that for toothpaste and toilet paper. That is far more essential than that victim’s fund.”
He used the word essential.
On appeal he got his money back. Well, his fund did. He had passed before the matter was settled. The State law had been clear that such private funds cannot be touched by the State. That had been cited to the judge and he didn’t care.
I will always remember that old drunk’s courage as he stood there, alone, in front of a condescending angry judge.
That made today’s notice of ruling personal. The States have long used the court’s as a personal piggy bank. Forfeiture of personal savings that had no relation to the person’s court appearance were widely sanctioned. A simple traffic ticket that, according to the applicable code section would be X amount, the court’s added administrative fees of all sorts. The names often were very creative. The resulting cost to the person in front of the judge could run hundreds more than the amount stated in the codes.
It was ridiculous and there was no way to object or remedy the situation. Unless you wanted to go down the path of appeal or writ.
That cost more money. Lots of money.
The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg just put a stop to it.
The following (though rather mind-numbing to some) is part of the holding in Timbs v Indiana written by The Honorable (and Notorious) RBG:
Held: The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Pp. 2–9.(a) The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates and renders applicable to the States Bill of Rights protections “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767 (alterations omitted). If a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires. Pp. 2–3.(b) The prohibition embodied in the Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Protection against excessive fines has been a constant.
TIMBS v. INDIANA Syllabus shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties. They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed,not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue. The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is indeed overwhelming.
The woman has given hope to a lot of people today. She has taken the glee out of that prosecutor’s voice and replaced governmental greed with justice.