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The Bill of Rights, as ratified in 1791, was about accepted as applying alone to the federal government. (It begins with “Congress shall …,” and while that’s in the Aboriginal Amendment, the added amendments were additionally about apparent as bound to the federal government; indeed, the Aboriginal Congress alone Madison’s angle to accommodate some bound restrictions on states.) The Fourteenth Amendment does absolute accompaniment government, and appropriately additionally bounded governments; but anytime aback it was enacted, there has been a altercation about whether it “incorporates” the Bill of Rights adjoin the states.

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The Cloister initially said no, again boring started adage yes to accurate accoutrement (a activity alleged “selective incorporation”). Best recently, in McDonald v. Burghal of Chicago, the Cloister captivated that the Added Amendment applies to the states. Thus, appropriate now,

The Institute for Amends (one of the accessible absorption law firms that I best respect) petitioned the Cloister to adjudge whether the Boundless Fines Article is incorporated, arguing that lower courts had disagreed acutely on the question. Such a breach amid lower courts is about apparent as a able acumen for the U.S. Supreme Cloister to footfall in and boldness the matter. And today the Cloister agreed to apprehend the case, so we should accept an acknowledgment by abutting Summer (unless the Year of the Punt gets renewed for a added season).

My Scott & Cyan Banister Amicus Abrupt Clinic acceptance Tyler Hastings, Karen Leung, and Brigid Mahoney and I filed an amicus abrupt acknowledging the petition, on account of my aide Beth Colgan — one of the top Boundless Fines Article advisers in the country — and 16 added professors: Chiraag Bains, Kevin Bennardo, Bruce L. Benson, Eric Blumenson, Peter B. Edelman, Frank R. Edwards, Alexes Harris, Wesley G. Jennings, Wayne A. Logan, Cortney E. Lollar, Karin D. Martin, Mitali Nagrecha, Mary Pattillo, Alex R. Piquero, Bryan L. Sykes, and Ronald F. Wright. (The Clinic usually specializes in the Aboriginal Amendment and accompanying statutes, but this is a attenuate exception: a case too absorbing to canyon up.)

The abrupt advisedly didn’t allocution about the split, or the precedents acknowledging assimilation of the Clause; the IJ address did an accomplished job of that. Instead, it approved to explain why the Article is about important to the accustomed lives of a all-inclusive cardinal of Americans, aback the accent of the built-in catechism is itself one acumen for the Cloister to accede to apprehend the case (see Sup. Ct. R. 10(c)).

Here is the meat of the brief, admitting with best footnotes bare (you can see them in the PDF version). Recall, of course, that we were the attorneys for the signatories, and the angle that the abrupt expresses are the signatories’ and not necessarily the drafters’.

[* * *]

Summary of Argument

State and bounded governments accept been levying greater and greater fines and relying heavily on forfeitures in contempo years, about at the amount of bodies who can atomic acquiesce to pay. Fines and forfeitures are punishments, but they can additionally accomplish money for cities and states, which gives governments an allurement to admission these punishments to boundless levels.

The Framers accustomed this danger, and included the Boundless Fines Article in the Bill of Rights to anticipate such abuses. But, partly because the Article has not yet been congenital adjoin the states, abounding states and cities are absolutely levying boundless fines and forfeitures.

Some accomplished the poor added about and in greater amounts, and bandy those who cannot pay into what has been declared as modern-day debtor’s prisons. Damage practices additionally hit financially accessible communities decidedly hard. And because this is a financially assisting enterprise, it is about additionally politically profitable: abounding who buck the accountability of fines and forfeitures abridgement the political adeptness to abide them. The government knows this, and additionally knows that adopting broadly applicative taxes instead of adopting acquirement from fines and forfeitures would acceptable activation a political backlash.

But the appropriate to be chargeless from boundless fines and forfeitures[1] is a basal appropriate of all Americans, accustomed by the Framers as no beneath important than its Eighth Amendment siblings, the appropriate to be chargeless from atrocious and abnormal punishments and from boundless bond (as able-bodied as added axiological rights, such as those anchored by the Aboriginal and Added Amendments). The Boundless Fines Article and the aegis adjoin boundless fines should be accustomed as a appropriate anchored by the federal Constitution adjoin accompaniment transgressions, and as a barrier adjoin the states’ banking and political incentives to admission fines and forfeitures added and more.


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I. This case claim the Court’s absorption because annoying fines acutely affect the lives of abounding Americans

A. Boundless fines decidedly abuse poor Americans

Fines are the best accepted anatomy of abuse acclimated by local, state, and federal governments. And their aftereffect is not aloof ample but deep: they can drive poor Americans into a alone aeon of growing bread-and-butter disaster.

A accomplished that would be acceptable (even if constitutionally excessive) to abounding of us may able-bodied be above a poor person’s adeptness to pay. People’s abortion to pay promptly may advance to still greater fees and surcharges, and can abuse their credit, which can accomplish it harder for them to acquisition abiding apartment and employment. The accumulated fees may additionally advance to bastille time for abortion to pay, or added penalties such as the accident of a driver’s license—which may in about-face amount bodies their jobs, decidedly in rural or added areas with bound or no admission to accessible transportation. All this makes it alike harder for them to pay their ever-growing debt, a debt that began with the aboriginal accomplished but that continues to ascend indefinitely.

Indeed, abundant of the accountability stemming from fines is about borne by the atomic citizens, who about accumulate “poverty penalties” that may acutely beat the budgetary amount of the aboriginal fine: backward fees, absorption fees, or authoritative fees such as fees for entering into a acquittal plan. Such abjection penalties are traps—easily stepped over by the majority of citizens who are able to pay, but austere obstacles with absolute after-effects for those who are not. In some cases, debtors accept been affected to accept amid “basic aliment such as food, hygiene, and apartment on the one hand, and authoritative payments adjoin their bread-and-butter sanctions on the other.” In others, debtors are artlessly clumsy to pay the fines at all. And these problems additionally disproportionately affect atramentous and Hispanic communities, as able-bodied as the poor of all races.

The assorted fines, surcharges, fees, and costs that the government may appoint in a accustomed case can finer assemblage up on anniversary other, exacerbating what was already annoying debt. For Harriet Cleveland of Alabama, for example, the stacking of sanctions meant that, admitting abiding efforts to pay, she could never affected the debt imposed by a cloister for alive afterwards allowance or a license.

The cloister bedevilled her to pay a accomplished and cloister costs, and placed her on clandestine acquittal with a $40 per ages administration fee.[2] Clumsy to acquisition approved employment, Ms. Cleveland did what she could to pay—including axis her absolute income-tax abatement over to the acquittal company, demography out a appellation accommodation on her car, “rent[ing] an alone allowance in her home to an aged drifter with dementia,” “sift[ing] through neighbors’ debris for soda cans to banknote in at the atom yard,” and alike burglary $50 from her son’s haversack and atom metal from alone homes—but her debt still jumped from a few hundred dollars to $4,713 in four years. Aback the acquittal aggregation angry her book aback over to the state, the accompaniment tacked on alike added authoritative fees and surcharges. Like so abounding others, Ms. Cleveland had no allusive adeptness to extricate herself from this punishment.

Indeed, some states systematically ambition poor bodies with fines. ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit acknowledged aid alignment based in St. Louis, Missouri, begin that bounded governments in Ferguson and added municipalities were operating

on the backs of their atomic and best politically accessible citizens. The municipalities appeared to be targeting low-income and atramentous communities with these practices. For example, fines were calm at ante added than fifteen times academy in one low-income, majority-black association than in a added flush adjoining municipality. Ferguson was amid the three affliction offenders.

Nor are states necessarily beat by the adversity of accession fines (however assorted through backward fees) from the poor: the blackmail of bastille time can about be acclimated to aggregate the money “from the families and accompany of those arrested who admired to save their admired ones from admiring in jail.”[3] (You can’t get claret from a stone, but maybe from the stone’s friends.) And because poor citizens are beneath acceptable to vote, and to accept admission to added forms of political power, governments may acquisition it easier to ambition fines adjoin them. Meanwhile, as Ms. Cleveland discovered, politically affecting clandestine entities comedy a role in the exploited enterprise, stacking the accouter added adjoin the likelihood of allusive attrition actuality brought to buck alfresco the courts.

Were the federal government to appoint in such schemes to accession acquirement through boundless fines, the Boundless Fines Article would bar fines that are “gross[ly] disproportionat[e]” to the severity of the offense. United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998). But aback fines are imposed by those states whose courts accept banned to absorb the Clause—or by the abounding cities or counties aural those states—no federal built-in aegis is available.

B. Boundless fines about advance to losses of licenses and added benefits, and to destroyed credit

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Excessive, unaffordable fines about advance to the accident of government allowances such as apartment assistance, added aegis payments, and aliment stamps. Declining to pay fines can additionally advance to the government abandoning one’s driver’s license. That in about-face makes it harder for a being to get to work, to accumulate a job, and appropriately to access money to pay the fines—which will again end up accumulative because of the abortion to promptly pay. Nonpayment of bent debt may additionally aftereffect in the abnegation of anatomic licenses, additionally authoritative it harder to get or accumulate a job. And advancing bent debt can additionally abort a debtor’s credit, authoritative it difficult to defended abiding application or housing. As the Washington Supreme Cloister explained,

The court’s abiding captivation in [debtor’s] lives [during collections] inhibits reentry: acknowledged or accomplishments checks will appearance an alive almanac in above cloister for individuals who accept not absolutely paid their [criminal debt]. . . . This alive almanac can accept austere abrogating after-effects on employment, on housing, and on finances. [Criminal] debt additionally impacts acclaim ratings, authoritative it added difficult to acquisition defended housing.

Excessive fines appropriately put financially accessible bodies into added ambiguous circumstances. For many, their bent debts can be finer abiding alike for accessory offenses.

C. Annoying fines about abnormally accountability boyish offenders

Unmanageable fines decidedly abuse poor adolescence and their families. They are adjourned abjection penalties aloof as adults are, but usually abridgement the assets to pay them; the applied amount is appropriately about borne by their parents, who are about already abounding with all the costs of parenthood. Such sanctions appropriately “cause families adversity ‘surviving on a day to day basis,'” sometimes banishment them to accept amid affairs advantage and advantageous their fines. And boundless fines on juveniles may additionally accept spillover furnishings on the juveniles’ siblings. Affected to pay off one child’s cloister fines, families may not accept abundant money for their added children’s academy clothes or academy tuition.

Excessive fines additionally arise to admission boyish recidivism. A contempo abstraction begin that arty restitution, arty academy bread-and-butter sanctions, and continuing debt alike aback a case is bankrupt “all decidedly added the allowance of a adolescence recidivating. . . . alike afterwards authoritative for accordant adolescence demographics and case characteristics variables.” Often, juveniles who abort to pay fines may be jailed, accept their driver’s authorization revoked, or be prevented from expunging their records. This accessories them in the boyish amends system, with little achievement of accepting out.

The abiding furnishings of declining to pay boyish fines, which accommodate bent contempt, acquittal violations, or added fees, may alike chase the juveniles into adolescence in the anatomy of acreage liens, awkwardness for expungement, and destroyed credit. And atramentous and Hispanic adolescence and their families additionally arise to be disproportionately aching by the boyish system’s fines. Alike aback the amount of boyish crimes is agnate amid boyhood adolescence and white youth, boyhood adolescence are added acceptable than white adolescence to still owe money at the cease of their case.

II. Like fines, forfeitures are all-over and can be financially devastating

Forfeiture practices are boundless throughout the country—and financially lucrative. Abounding such seizures appear out of “civil asset forfeiture” programs, in which the government secures a damage afterwards aboriginal accepting a conviction, and at times afterwards anytime accepting filed bent charges. The drive to use damage to accession acquirement may incentivize policing of offenses area seizures of banknote or acreage are best likely, to the damage of policing agitated crimes. While this may accommodate seizures of aerial amount items such as ancestors homes, and automobiles, in some jurisdictions badge are alike abduction baby amounts of banknote during badge encounters.

Like fines, forfeitures can be financially devastating. Damage practices about “target the poor and added groups atomic able to avert their interests in damage proceedings.” A damage may bankrupt bodies of banknote they charge for basal necessities, a agent acclimated for carriage to assignment or school, or alike the roof over their and their family’s heads.

III. Assimilation is all-important because states accept able banking incentives to accession acquirement by levying boundless fines and forfeitures

Sovereigns are consistently agog for money, and fines and forfeitures are about an accessible way to get this money. Fines and forfeitures are appropriately abnormally acceptable to be abused—which is why the advertiser of the Boundless Fines Article in Anglo-American law dates aback to Magna Carta.[4]

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Today, the arrangement of targeting the poor with fines and again arty “poverty penalties” generates huge sums for states and localities, as do forfeitures. They accomplish as astern taxes—where those with the atomic adeptness to pay end up advantageous the most.

And these practices are abnormally politically ambrosial because they abate taxes for the added population, while burdening those who are atomic acceptable to advance back. The poor, who are best accomplished by boundless fines and forfeitures, are additionally amid the atomic acceptable to vote. They are beneath acceptable to access political adeptness in added ways, such as through accidental to political campaigns. They are beneath acceptable to accept accompany in aerial places. And bodies with a bent almanac may about be clumsy to achieve their voting rights if they abort to pay their bent debts. Laws in thirty-four states acquiesce for connected disenfranchisement due to outstanding bent debt behindhand of whether the ambitious aborigine has any allusive adeptness to pay.

Given this political reality, it is not hasty that fines and forfeitures are increasing: For example, Arizona originally imposed an added 57% abomination customs based on the accumulated absolute of added bread-and-butter sanctions. In 2012, that customs rose to 83%. Similarly, in the accomplished ten years the Department of Justice’s asset damage affairs has complex seizures of money and acreage accretion over $28 billion—and this excludes forfeitures acquired through bounded or accompaniment proceedings.

And aloof as accompaniment legislatures accept an allurement to actualize laws that advance to boundless fines and forfeitures, accompaniment courts accept an allurement not to badge them. Indeed, fines about armamentarium the courts themselves. Decidedly in budget-strapped times, some governments become abased on acquirement from bread-and-butter sanctions. One address acclaimed that the “Nevada Supreme Cloister afresh went bankrupt because acquirement from cartage tickets plummeted, and the burghal of San Jose, California, lamented the bead in cartage abuse revenue.” An Oklahoma County District Judge was afresh quoted as saying, “Today, we armamentarium apparently 90 percent or added of the operation of the courts absolutely out of the money that the cloister collects.”

Similarly, prosecutors and law administration about anon accept damage funds, and this about leads to adulterated priorities. For example, beforehand this year a bill was filed in Alabama’s assembly that would crave a confidence above-mentioned to damage and that would abode acquirement from forfeitures in the state’s accepted fund. In response, the presidents of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and Alabama Sheriffs Association about declared that, if the bill was passed, prosecutors would book bent accuse in irenic and drug-offense cases adjoin bodies who they contrarily would accept believed bigger served by aberration programs, and law administration would stop policing biologic and acreage crimes. Afterwards accepting damage funds, the groups reasoned, “[w]hat allurement would bounded badge and sheriffs accept to advance manpower, assets and time in these operations?”

Recognizing the Boundless Fines Article as attached accompaniment and bounded activity would not cure all these ills. It would alone absolute boundless fines and forfeitures, which this Cloister has authentic as bound to those that are “gross[ly] disproportionat[e].” Bajakajian, 524 U.S. at 336-37. It would leave governments chargeless to appoint austere fines that are not excessive. Understandably, such fines and forfeitures may advisedly account ample bread-and-butter pain, so as to avert and abuse misconduct.

But accumulation the Article would at atomic crave accompaniment courts to badge the alien boundaries of fines as a amount of federal right—and to admit that accompaniment and bounded governments’ growing appetence for adopting money through fines charge be accountable to some built-in constraint.


Anglo-American law has continued accustomed the anger of boundless fines and forfeitures, from 1215 to 1689 to 1791. That appropriate is as important as the others that the Bill of Rights protects.

Indeed, for the poor, the appropriate is abnormally important, because boundless fines and forfeitures can appoint acrid burdens on poor defendants, burdens that accept furnishings abiding for years. And acquirement from fines and forfeitures tempts governments to consistently admission them, and accompaniment courts to carelessness analytical them. This Cloister should admission certiorari and adjudge whether the Boundless Fines Article should be activated adjoin accompaniment and bounded governments—as are the added clauses of the Eighth Amendment, and the abundant majority of the added genitalia of the Bill of Rights.

[1] The Cloister has ahead captivated that forfeitures aggregate fines for the purposes of the Boundless Fines Clause. See Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993) (civil forfeitures); Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544 (1993) (criminal forfeitures).

[2] The government allowances financially aback partnering with clandestine acquittal and collections companies, both through accession added money and because privatization relieves the government of the charge to expend tax dollars for privatized services.

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[3] Such jailing of bodies who are clumsy (rather than unwilling) to pay may be alone actionable beneath Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983); but if courts are barred from arty boundless fines in the aboriginal place, that would crop abundant beneath break for such actionable jailing.

[4] The Article was taken about accurately from Virginia’s boundless fines clause, which was adopted from the English Bill of Rights, which in about-face dates aback to Magna Carta. Browning-Ferris Indus. of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 266-68 (1989). Before Magna Carta, the King about imposed boundless fines on his capacity or political enemies to accession revenue. But beneath Magna Carta, the King was accurately bound in application fines as a antecedent of aristocratic acquirement or as a weapon adjoin his enemies. Furthermore, accoutrement in Magna Carta absolutely declared that defendants’ lives and their adeptness to advance a alimentation should not be broke by fines, and banned fines that bankrupted defendants.

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