Across Alabama, residents lose their jobs, housing, drivers’ licenses, and spend long stretches in jail because they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. This week, a unanimous United States Supreme Court reminded states that this is not supposed to happen anywhere in America.
The case, Timbs v. Indiana, concerns the questionable practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement is permitted to seize property of people merely suspected of criminal activity. But the Court devotes the bulk of its opinion to providing states a refresher on the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, reaching back to the Magna Carta and recalling Southern States’ Black Codes. Fines get special attention because they have been wrongly used to raise revenue, punish political enemies, and subjugate African Americans, in a way that conflicts with “the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”
Alabama Appleseed has documented how thousands of Alabamians are trapped in cycles of debt, incarceration, and grinding poverty because they cannot afford to pay fines, fees, and court costs assessed against them or their families. A survey conducted last year found that court debt drove over 80% of survey takers to give up basic necessities, that over 50% had been jailed for being unable to pay what they owed, and that about 40% had committed crimes like stealing or selling drugs to pay court debt for non-felony offenses. The majority believed they’d never be able to pay everything they owed.
Terrence Truitt spent eight days in jail because he couldn’t afford to pay fines from fishing without permission, which he did to feed himself and his children. Terry Knowles lived in a tiny motel room with his extended family so he could be close enough to work to walk because he could not afford the fee to reinstate his license.
Callie Johnson missed payments on basic necessities because she was helping her children pay their court debt. Angela Dabney, a single mother, lost her driver’s license because she couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets – and because she lost her license, she lost her job.
If there was ever any doubt, this week’s unanimous opinion makes clear that the kind of suffering imposed on these Alabama families runs afoul of the Constitution and must stop. At a minimum, fines should “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive an offender (of his) livelihood,” the opinion states.
Also at issue in the Timbs case was civil forfeiture. Alabama law enforcement officials have claimed that state laws protect citizens from the kinds of abuses documented in Timbs.
Not necessarily. As Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year, Alabama’s abusive civil asset forfeiture scheme, which allows the state to take money and property from people without even accusing them of a crime, enriches law enforcement agencies and disproportionately harms people of color. Civil asset forfeiture is an unjust process that deprives people of property without due process, and it should be abolished.
In its ruling, the high court stated that the constitutional provision which forbids excessive fines applies to states in civil as well as criminal cases when the resulting forfeitures are at least partially punitive. In essence, it found that Indiana’s seizure of a man’s Range Rover was unconstitutional because $42,000 was a radically disproportionate fine for the sale of $400 worth of heroin.
Here in Alabama, police more often seize rent money, not Range Rovers. Our study found that the amount of cash seized in civil forfeiture cases involved $1,372 or less in half of all cases examined. The legal fees to get it back are usually more, so most property owners never attempt to get their property back — even where they were not convicted of wrongdoing in connection with the seized property. That should give us all pause.
The fines levied against Terrence Truitt, Angela Dabney, Terry Knowles, Callie Johnson, and the other individuals who took Appleseed’s survey were on average far lower than $42,000, but their consequences were no less devastating. Because they had no way of paying what the state demanded of them, people who took this survey gave up food, shelter, and medicine. They went to jail.
An orderly society requires that violations carry consequences, and it is not Appleseed’s contention that individuals who break the law be permitted to “get away with it” simply because they are poor. But excessive fines are in the eye of the beholder, and Appleseed’s research makes clear that fines that would be manageable for some are devastating for others.
No one should lose their driver’s license, and with it, their ability to work, because they cannot afford to pay a ticket, fees, and interest for a busted headlight. No one should be jailed, or homeless, or give up medicine, or feel forced to accept charity or commit a felony, because they were too poor to pay their court debt. Alabama can fix this, by ending the practice of revoking licenses for unpaid traffic debt, and by evaluating individuals’ financial circumstances and scaling fines to their ability to pay.
Excessive fines are alive and well in Alabama, and they are destroying lives. As nine Supreme Court justices agreed this week — It’s time for a change.