The Eighth Amendment consists of one sentence: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Until Wednesday, it wasn’t clear if the part about excessive fines applied to the individual states. In fact, you may not know this, but the entire Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government for the first hundred years or so of our history. Then the 14th Amendment, which just celebrated its 150th birthday, incorporated those protections and applied them to the states. Since then, the Supreme Court has applied the components of the Bill of Rights to the states on a case-by-case basis. The question presented is always whether the right or protection is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” or “deeply rooted in our history and tradition.” For the Eighth Amendment, the Court had previously incorporated and applied the other two rules against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments. But not the one against excessive fines.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the rule against excessive fines applies to the states as well. Its ruling comes in the case of a guy whose $42,000 car was confiscated after he was popped for selling small amounts of heroin. He paid for the car with money he received from an insurance policy when his dad died, so it didn’t have anything to do with the drugs in that sense. When the state sued him to forfeit the car, the trial court said no because the forfeiture was so grossly disproportionate to the crime that it would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines. After all, the maximum fine the guy faced in the criminal case was $10,000. But the state supreme court said the ban didn’t apply to the states.
In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court confirmed that state fines must comply with the Eighth Amendment. To be sure, all fifty states already prohibit excessive fines in their own constitutions, some directly and others by requiring proportionality. Now they must abide by the federal interpretation as well.