Legal (Constitutional) question: The 14th amendment and fines

Why is a system of flat dollar-amount fines not a violation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause? Suppose, for example, that Bill Gates and Joe Schmoe commit the same crime, for which the punishment is a $100,000 dollar fine.

For Gates, the fine is a mere nuisance, if even that. But for Schmoe, the fine could mean total liquidation of his property, disolution of his marriage, loss of his home and transporation, and as a result, possibly even loss of his employment.

The fine would have virtually no effect on Gates, and would destroy Schmoe. How is that seen as “equal protection”? Shouldn’t fines be a percentage of net worth? If violating a particular law will destroy Schmoe, shouldn’t violating the exact same law destroy Gates as well?

Probably because a relative system would open a can of worms. Specifically:

  1. Calculation of net worth is usually not a simple matter. Do we count income? Value of possessions? What about investments? Would about difficult-to-liquidate investments such as real estate?

  2. There would be huge differences that would be difficult to justify. Is it right that I be charged $100 for a speeding ticket while someone having 5% of my worth is only charged $5? Would it be right for Bill Gates to be charged $100,000,000 for a speeding ticket? Every police officer would be working night and day trying to catch him speeding!

  3. People would play games with their net worth in order to minimize their penalties.
    In a nutshell, such a system would be rife with corruption.

IANAL, but I don’t see how the equal protection requirements are impacted by your hypo. The equal protection clause is: “nor [shall any State] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Bill and Joe both have equal access to courts, to defense attorneys, to present witnesses, and all the other protections guaranteed by the rest of the Constitution. It’s purpose was to provide a Constitutional basis for the early civil rights legislation of the Reconstruction period.

Where the 14th does intersect with fines is in what happens when you can’t pay. The Supreme Court has decided that states cannot jail, or extend the jail term of, those who cannot pay a fine. See, for example, The annotated 14th amendment.

I think what you are proposing (sliding scale for fines) is more a political question.

Couldn’t you construct a similar argument against any sort of punishment? Jail sentences have a disparate impact because older people are giving up a greater percentage of their life, higher-income people are giving up more income while incarcerated, and sensitive people are more likely than goons to find it a really unpleasant experience.

Couldn’t you construct a similar argument against any sort of punishment? Jail sentences have a disparate impact because older people are giving up a greater percentage of their life, higher-income people are giving up more income while incarcerated, and sensitive people are more likely than goons to find it a really unpleasant experience.

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread.”
– Anatole France (1894).

Let’s face it, the rich write the laws. Why would they support changing the laws if it wasn’t in their best interest?

Finland uses an income-based system for traffic fines. Sometimes the results are bizarre:

http://www.tcp.com/~ether/articles/finland-traffic-fines.html

That sounds like the most reasonable and believable response. Thanks, Ftg.

The Finnish system looks reasonable to an extent. Note that the huge fines only come into effect if you exceed the speed limit by more than 12 miles/hour. They fail to report the monthly income of the person who was fined $71,000. The student who had net monthly income of $724 was to be fined $82, according to their calculations. So, we’re talking like typically 10-12% , although it could be much more.

Another argument is that a person pays a fine to reimburse society for the damage they’ve done. The fine is used, in theory, to pay for the cost of the legal system, increased possible need of medical care, abuse of public property, etc. By this argument, the fines should equal. Bill Gates driving 25 mph over the speed limit is not committing a greater crime than I would be driving the same speed. Being as we committed crimes of equal magnitude, we committed equal amounts ot “damage” and should pay equal costs.

The Equal Protection clause provides that similarly situated people must be treated simialrly. If the law is going to differentiate, it must do so for some varying level of good reason, and all laws do in fact differentiate between categories of people, even if only between, say, murderers and non-murderers.

The Equal Protection clause provides the most protection to a “suspect class”, generally race, ethnicity, of national origin. If a state law differentiates between people based on any of these, it may only do so if it is necessary to promote a compelling interest, and the burden of proof is on the govvernment to demontrate that this standard has been met. This is nearly impossible; these laws are “virtually per se invalid”.

The next greatest protection goes to what is sometimes called “quasi-suspect classification”; for example (among other classifications), gender. These laws are only valid if they have a substantial relation to an important interest, and the burden of proof is again on the govenrment. This isn’t quite as high a standard as for suspect classification, but is still pretty high. Virginia Military Acadamy couldn’t meet it when it tried to keepout female students.

Every other classification must only meet a “rational basis” standard; the law must have some rational relation to a legitimate interest, and the burden is on the person attacking the law. That person must demonstate there is no rational relation between the law and any legitimate interest of the government.

Wealth is not a suspect or quasi-suspect classification. Laws that impact people because of their wealth must only be rationally related to a legitimate interest. Note, though, that this cuts both ways: a wealthy person cannot claim wealth discrimination becasue he pays more in taxes than a poorer person.