Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

This week, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional for states to impose excessive fines, extending a federal constitutional protection to states. This may embolden courts to examine states and localities that impose crushing fines on those unable to pay.

In Timbs v. Indiana, Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling heroin and as part of his sentence was ordered to forfeit his vehicle that he purchased for US$42,000. Timbs challenged the ruling because his vehicle was worth more than four times the maximum fine for his crime. An Indiana court ruled the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines did not apply to states, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” allowing authorities to “retaliate against or chill” political speech, or impose them as “a source of revenue.” As evidence this is “scarcely hypothetical,” she cited an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief that describes a growing reliance of state and local governments on fines and fees as a source of revenue.

The Supreme Court ruling limits excessive forfeiture by states and has the potential to change the way states use excessive criminal fines and fees to raise revenue. Human Rights Watch has documented the devastating effects of excessive fines and fees, which have a disproportionate impact on the poor and communities of color. When a person cannot afford court-mandated fines and fees, they can face arrest warrants, extended sentences, and incarceration, often putting them further in debt.

In one case in Georgia, Thomas Barrett was fined $200 and sentenced to probation for stealing a $2 beer. He was required to pay a private company for probation supervision on top of his fine. He couldn’t buy food and started selling his plasma to keep up with payments. When he fell more than $1000 behind, he was jailed. In some cases, these fees are up to 10 times the fine. Fines and fees can be levied for a host of things including police and court activities, victims’ restitution, retirement and training programs.

State governments should stop relying on user fees for revenue and courts should assess whether someone can actually pay a fine or fee before imposing them. In light of the Timbs decision, states need to take these steps at a minimum to protect the constitutional right of defendants against excessive fines.