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Excessive Fines Clause

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | May 23, 2024

In the context of federal crimes and penalties, particularly for financial crimes, asset seizures of the defendant are among the most controversial and hotly contested penalties.

This procedure, while legal, can sometimes feel overwhelmingly punitive, especially when the value of seized assets seems disproportionate to the crime committed.

Excessive Fines Clause
The “excessive fines clause” ensures fines imposed are not disproportionate to the offense.

If you are facing or have experienced the seizure of your assets as a penalty for an alleged offense, the same Constitutional amendment that protects against "cruel and unusual punishment" also protects you against excessive fines.

This "excessive fines clause" ensures that fines imposed in criminal cases are not grossly disproportionate to the offense. It's important to note that while the amendment does not specify what constitutes an "excessive fine," the courts did not clarify much for many years.

This lack of clarity allowed the federal government to justify the seizure of defendants' assets as penalties for their offenses.

The Eighth Amendment also protects against excessive civil fines, as noted in Hudson v. United States, 522 U.S. 93 (1997). In addition to monetary payments, the excessive fines clause applies to forfeitures of property.

The United States Supreme Court had little to say about excessive fines for years. In one early case, it ruled that it had no appellate jurisdiction to revise the sentence of an inferior court, even though the excessiveness of the fines was apparent on the face of the record.

However, in recent years, the courts have clarified that asset seizures can be interpreted as "fines," a development that significantly strengthens defense attorneys' ability to challenge excessive asset seizures as violations of the Eighth Amendment.

What is the Eighth Amendment?

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution is a powerful tool in safeguarding citizens from potential government abuse in the judicial process. It states, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

Simply put, the Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution protects against imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments.

Eighth Amendment

This amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with the rest of the United States Bill of Rights. The amendment limits the state or federal government to impose unduly harsh penalties on criminal defendants before and after a conviction.

This limitation applies equally to the price for obtaining pretrial release and the punishment for crime after conviction.

The "excessive fines clause" is particularly pertinent in cases involving asset seizure, where the government confiscates property believed to be connected to a crime.

Its principle is to prevent the government from using the penalty as a financial weapon that could lead to ruin rather than a rightful punishment proportional to the offense.

The Supreme Court ruled that the excessive fines clause prohibits fines that are "so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law."

The Court struck a fine as excessive for the first time in United States v. Bajakajian (1998). They ruled that the excessive fines clause and the cruel and unusual punishments clause apply to the states.

Seminal Court Cases

In recent years, case law has refined the definition of "excessive fines" to afford more protection to people facing asset seizures. Let's look at two of the most pivotal cases.

United States v. Bajakajian (1998)

This landmark case marked the first time the Supreme Court applied the Excessive Fines Clause to a case involving currency forfeiture. Hossein Bajakajian was fined and faced the forfeiture of $357,144 for failing to declare it upon leaving the United States.

United States v. Bajakajian (1998)

The law states any amount of cash over $10,000 must be declared. The Court ruled that a forfeiture of the entire amount of cash was grossly disproportional to his offense. This case underscored the principle that fines and forfeitures should not be used as an additional punishment or revenue source at the expense of fairness.

Congress superseded Bajakajian in 31 U.S.C. 5332, bulk cash smuggling, requiring a defendant to forfeit all property in concealing more than $10,000 in currency into or outside the United States.

Timbs v. Indiana (2019)

Expanding on the principles laid out in previous decisions, the Supreme Court in Timbs v. Indiana reinforced that the Excessive Fines Clause applies not only at the federal level but also to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.

In this case, his Land Rover, valued at $42,000, was seized by local law enforcement because it was used to transport drugs valued at a few hundred dollars.

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the state's seizure of Timbs' vehicle was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his drug offense and hence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

What is the Role of a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney?

If you face federal charges accompanied by the threat of asset seizures, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can advocate to ensure that the punishments meted out do not violate your constitutional rights. Some possible strategies include:

  • Challenging the Proportionality of Asset Seizures. The attorney must assess whether the asset seizure is proportional to the crime committed. This involves a detailed analysis of the crime's nature and the value of the seized assets. If there is a substantial discrepancy where the value of the seized assets far exceeds the crime's severity, this can form the basis of a strong argument under the Eighth Amendment.
  • Leveraging Legal Precedents. Drawing on established legal precedents, such as those set by the abovementioned cases, an attorney can craft compelling arguments highlighting any disproportionality in asset seizures. This approach not only situates an individual's case within a broader legal context but also leverages historical judgments to fortify the defense.
  • Showing the Financial Impact on the Defendant. The attorney can present evidence of the financial impact of the seizure on the defendant and their dependents. Courts may consider the individual's financial circumstances when determining the proportionality of a fine or forfeiture. If the seizure would result in undue financial hardship, this could bolster the argument for its excessiveness.
  • Legitimizing the Sources of Funds. This can be a significant factor if the seized assets were acquired legitimately. The defense can argue that the forfeiture of legitimately obtained property, especially when not directly connected to the criminal activity, is unjust and disproportionate.

The Eighth Amendment's "excessive fines clause" ensures that fines imposed in federal criminal cases are not grossly disproportionate to the offense. Contact our law firm, Eisner Gorin LLP, in Los Angeles, California, for more information.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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