For years the Supreme Court had little to say about excessive fines. In an early case, it held 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.29 Justice Brandeis once contended in dissent that the denial of second-class mailing privileges to a newspaper on the basis of its past conduct, because it imposed additional mailing costs which grew day by day, amounted to an unlimited fine that was an "unusual" and "unprecedented" punishment proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.30 The Court has elected to deal with the issue of fines levied upon indigents, resulting in imprisonment upon inability to pay, in terms of the equal protection clause,31 thus obviating any necessity to develop the meaning of "excessive fines" in relation to ability to pay. The Court has held the Clause inapplicable to civil jury awards of punitive damages in cases between private parties, "when the government neither has prosecuted the action nor has any right to receive a share of the damages awarded."32 The Court based this conclusion on a review of the history and purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause. At the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, the Court noted, "the word 'fine' was understood to mean a payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense."33 The Eighth Amendment itself, as were antecedents of the Clause in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, "clearly was adopted with the particular intent of placing limits on the powers of the new government."34 Therefore, while leaving open the issues of whether the Clause has any applicability to civil penalties or to qui tam actions, the Court determined that "the Excessive Fines Clause was intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by, and payable to, the government."35 The Court has held, however, that the excessive fines clause can be applied in civil forfeiture cases.36
28 Hudson v. Parker, 156 U.S. 277 (1895).
32 Browning-Ferris Industries v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257 (1989).
33 492 U.S. at 265.
34 492 U.S. at 266.
35 492 U.S. at 268.
36 In Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993), the Court noted that the application of the excessive fines clause to civil forfeiture did not depend on whether it was a civil or criminal procedure, but rather on whether the forfeiture could be seen as punishment. The Court was apparently willing to consider any number of factors in making this evaluation; civil forfeiture was found to be at least partially intended as punishment, and thus limited by the clause, based on its common law roots, its focus on culpability, and various indications in the legislative histories of its more recent incarnations.
In 1998, however, the Court injected vitality into the strictures of the clause. "The touchstone of the constitutional inquiry under the Excessive Fines Clause is the principle of proportionality: The amount of the forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish."37 In United States v. Bajakajian,38 the government sought to require that a criminal defendant charged with violating federal reporting requirements regarding the transportation of more than $10,000 in currency out of the country forfeit the currency involved, which totaled $357,144. The Court held that the forfeiture39 in this particular case violated the Excessive Fines Cause because the amount forfeited was "grossly disproportionate to the gravity of defendant's offense."40 In determining proportionality, the Court did not limit itself to a comparison of the fine amount to the proven offense, but it also considered the particular facts of the case, the character of the defendant, and the harm caused by the offense.41
38 524 U.S. 321 (1998).
39 The Court held that a criminal forfeiture, which is imposed at the time of sentencing, should be considered a fine, because it serves as a punishment for the underlying crime. 524 U.S. at 328. The Court distinguished this from civil forfeiture, which, as an in rem proceeding against property, would generally not function as a punishment of the criminal defendant. 524 U.S. at 330-32.
40 524 U.S. at 334.
41 In Bajakajian, the lower court found that the currency in question was not derived from illegal activities, and that the defendant, who had grown up a member of the Armenian minority in Syria, had failed to report the currency out of distrust of the government. 524 U.S. at 325-26. The Court found it relevant that the defendant did not appear to be among the class of persons for whom the statute was designed, i.e. a money launderer or tax evader, and that the harm to the government from the defendant's failure to report the currency was minimal. 524 U.S. at 338.