IJ’s campaign to end civil forfeiture is one of our most sweeping and successful efforts yet. And it continues to bear fruit in the fight for liberty. That’s because out of that initiative grew our new, pioneering work challenging “taxation by citation.”
Civil forfeiture is not the only illegitimate means that state and local governments use to fill their coffers. They are also implementing and aggressively enforcing abusive and outrageous fines and fees schemes. Just like civil forfeiture, these criminal and civil sanctions are not about protecting public health and safety—they are about extracting as much revenue from citizens as possible.
Take, for instance, cities in California where a $100 fine for a traffic infraction requires a driver to pay $490 through various surcharges and fees. If the defendant misses the initial deadline, the $100 citation goes up to $815. Although these sky-high fines and fees may be an annoyance and an inconvenience to people of some means, they are often devastating to those living on the edge of poverty. If people can’t pay or if they miss the next deadline, the state will suspend their driver’s licenses, thereby depriving them of the ability to get to work. This could make it harder to pay court debt, leading to more charges and a downward spiral of debt and despair—and potentially even jail time.
IJ’s first case—and our first victory—in this fight is a quintessential example of this dynamic. In Pagedale, Missouri, low-income residents were fined thousands of dollars for trivial offenses like missing curtains, peeling paint, and even walking on the left side of crosswalks. The city set up special, highly irregular municipal court procedures to prosecute these abusive citations, stacking the deck against Pagedale’s poorest residents and exacerbating tensions between the community and law enforcement.
So what is IJ doing about this disturbing nationwide trend? As we have done so successfully before, we are using all the tools of public interest law to elevate to national prominence a once obscure issue of vital importance to liberty.
We currently have nine pathbreaking cases against these schemes in federal and state courts. Our historic U.S. Supreme Court victory in Timbs v. Indiana earlier this year allowed us to give life to the long-neglected Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. We are combining that landmark decision with other precedent we’ve already secured in this area to restrain the grasping hand of government.
From our class action lawsuit against Chicago’s car impound racket to our newest case against Richland, Washington’s attempt to extort tens of thousands of dollars in fees from a widow simply trying to construct a small addition to her modest home, our big picture goal is to end the use of fines and fees for revenue generation.
Meanwhile, we’re combining litigation with our peerless approach to the media to educate reporters and the public about these abuses and what can be done to stop them. Our challenge to a Florida city’s attempt to foreclose on a home due to unmowed grass made front-page news everywhere from the local paper to USA Today. Moreover, we are conducting innovative research on this issue, including creating a database of state laws that may encourage cities to abuse their power to levy fines and fees (set for release next year). That will build our new study focusing on three Georgia cities and their heavy reliance on taxation by citation.
Challenging abusive fines and fees is one of IJ’s top priorities for 2020. The cases themselves are demanding and resource intensive. They are, frankly, hard to put together and hard to litigate. But they are exciting, cutting edge, and vitally needed to curtail government abuse. We look forward to keeping you closely posted on our progress.
Scott Bullock is IJ’s president and general counsel.