Excessive Fines in New York
Several cases have come into my firm’s offices lately: The City of New York is in the increased habit of issuing Summonses for Zoning Resolution, Building Code, and Consumer Affairs Violations by small businesses seeking wildly excessive fines of $25,000 per summons. Often, they are issuing multiple summonses for similar offenses, exposing property owners to more than $100,000 in crippling fines and/or hundreds of thousands of dollars in “restitution”.
Excessive Fines in the Constitution
Wait a minute? Don’t we have a “no excessive fines” clause in the United States Constitution, Eighth Amendment, and the New York State Constitution Article 1 Section 5? Don’t other States have similar clauses in their State Constitutions? The United States Supreme Court has addressed the subject of excessive fines in three separate opinions over the past 13 years.
In Timbs v. Indiana, ___ U.S.___, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019), the State of Indiana sought forfeiture of the defendant’s automobile because he pled guilty in connection with an unlawful drug crime where his automobile was used. The United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to State Governments.
In Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 127 S. Ct. 1057 (2007), the United States Supreme Court held that a Jury verdict of $79.5 Million in punitive damages against a Defendant Tobacco Company for causing the Plaintiff’s death from smoking was a taking of property from the Tobacco Company without Due Process of Law. The verdict was designed to punish non-parties.
In Cooper Industries v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U.S. 424, 121 S. Ct. 1678 (2001), the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines clause applies to the States through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. In Cooper Industries, the United States Supreme Court held that grossly excessive punishments could not be inflicted upon tortfeasors.
So, what is “excessive” fine?
The New York State Courts have been much more specific. In County of Nassau v. Canavan, 1 N.Y. 3d 134, 770 N.Y.S. 2d 277 (2003), the New York State Court of Appeals struck down a Nassau County Ordinance which permitted the county to seize automobiles in addition to fining residents convicted of driving while intoxicated.
In People v. Saffore, 18 N.Y. 2d 101, 271 N.Y.S. 2d 972 (1966), the New York State Court of Appeals struck down an excessive $500 fine under the following circumstances: the Defendant was indigent, and the lower court directed that he serve one-day imprisonment for each dollar remaining on the fine, thus effectively sentencing the Defendant to 500 days in prison for misdemeanor assault.
In Prince v. City of New York, 108 A.D. 3d 114, 966 N.Y.S. 2d 16 (1st Dept. 2013), the Appellate Division, First Department struck down a $2,000 fine levied on a Defendant who removed a single television antenna from a curbside garbage bag. The Defendant, Albert Prince, was fined $2,000 for this New York City Department of Sanitization Summons. The Appellate Division, First Department struck down the fine and established the appropriate standard: “… the fine imposed is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense and must be vacated.” See 108 A.D. 3d at 116.
Excessive Fines and Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Because of the Coronavirus Public Health Pandemic, Cities and States are suffering tax losses and looking for new sources of revenue. Don’t let them get an excessive fine from your client. $25,000 for one Zoning Resolution or Building Code offense is clearly excessive under the cases cited above. Four summonses for similar related offenses issued at the same time resulting in a demand for $100,000 in fines is absolutely crippling and is certainly not permitted under the case-law cited above.
Is Restitution Excessive Fines?
“Restitution” of hundreds of thousands of dollars from painfully small businesses masquerading as a fine is totally unconstitutional.
If you have a client who is the victim of this overreaching by a City or State Government, please be sure to appeal these crippling fines up the Appellate chain. We have had success with this approach.
It is Our Duty to Uphold the Constitution
A societal problem can not be visited on individual citizens. We all must work collectively to solve our tax revenue problems. Excessive fines are an unconstitutional approach. As lawyers, it is our duty to uphold this constitutional provision throughout our court system.
Have questions about excessive fines or think you might have a case, contact me at 212-973-9339 or 718-793-8822.