3/6/2019, noon | Updated on 3/6/2019, noon
A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Timbs v. Indiana stated for the first time ...
For the last year, the City of Chicago has been facing accusations of imposing excessive fines and fees on residents but a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling could change the way that the city does business. Photo Credit: Jarek Tuszyński

Supreme Court Ruling Could Be A Turning Point For Fines And Fees in Chicago


A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Timbs v. Indiana stated for the first time that the excessive fines clause found in the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment can be applied to state and local governments. This new precedent limits the power states and municipalities have to impose excessive fines on citizens and seize private property.

This could be good news for Chicagoans who are facing exorbitant ticketing in their neighborhoods which, if unpaid, can result in the seizure or their vehicle or drivers license and thousands of dollars in late fees.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Ultimately, the supreme court decision to incorporate the Eighth Amendment means that citizens are guaranteed those protections at the federal, state, and local levels.

“If a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s decision which was also announced by her. “Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason. Such fines undermine other liberties. They can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue.”

Over the last year, it has come to light that in the City of Chicago, there are a significant number of people struggling to pay city fees and fines and subsequent data shows that predominantly black and hispanic neighborhoods are being disproportionately ticketed when compared to all the neighborhoods in Chicago, according to a database of tickets that was created and published by ProPublica Illinois.

In January of 2018, Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), an organization which advocate for communities that are often left out of conversations about policy, released Stopping the Debt Spiral which was a report that provided in-depth research on the hardships that can be associated with excessive fines and fees and issued a series of recommendations to the City of Chicago on how to make ticket debt less punitive for low-income families.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling solidifies that local and state governments can and should be limited when it comes to imposing excessive fines and seizing private property and while this ruling isn’t exclusively aimed at addressing fines and seizures related to unpaid tickets, it can certainly apply to it.

Following the ruling, a coalition of organizations in Chicago, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Chicago Jobs Council, and Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras, held a press conference in Chicago’s City Hall building right outside of the city clerk’s office to recommend that the city acknowledge the Supreme Court ruling and reevaluate their financial penalty and property seizure policies that have created hardships for many residents.