Excessive Fines in the TPVA; Driver's Responsibility Fee Case Moves Forward
If you live on Long Island, you heard about the dreaded TPVA; Nassau and Suffolk both have a Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. It is perhaps worse if you are simply passing through and hear that one TPVA charges exorbitant fees that double and triple over time. This case discussed below is a bit more interesting because of the Excessive Fines Clause decision recently rendered by the Supreme Court ("Timbs v. Indiana" or "Timbs") of the United States yet no one has challenged, among other things, the doubling and tripling of these TPVA fines for merely being late! Here is an open question and issue pending in court that, hopefully, will soon be decided: Are the fines charged by the TPVA excessive if a person has been adjudicated not guilty?
The first question in an excessive fines case is whether the fine at issue is punishment. The second step of the excessive fine inquiry is whether the fine is in fact excessive. The Supreme Court in Bajakajian has explained that a fine imposed as punishment is excessive under the Excessive Fines Clause only “if it is grossly disproportional to the gravity of a defendant’s offense.” “The touchstone of the constitutional inquiry under the Excessive Fines Clause,” moreover, “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.” While not addressed before the Supreme Court in Timbs, the seizure of the vehicle under the circumstances seems to be excessive because there were fines paid and the amount of drugs that were sold were small, amounting to hundreds of dollars.
In Dubin v. The County of Nassau, No. 16-CV-4209 (JFB)(AKT) (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2017) (“Dubin”), United States District Court Judge Joseph F. Bianco summarized the applicable law regarding the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause in the Second Circuit in allowing claims against the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency (“TPVA”) to survive a motion to dismiss. At issue in Dubin is the Driver’s Responsibility Fee (Nassau County Ordinance 190-2012) charged as a non-discretionary penalty imposed merely for having been issued a ticket. Bizarre as it might seem, the complaint from which the TPVA sought dismissal in Dubin alleged that the fine "is an excessive fine issued against those whose only improper action is simply being issued a ticket," and that "[b]y charging a penalty after the charges/accusatory instrument have been dismissed, defendants have violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition upon excessive fines in comparison to the accused actions." In acknowledging the applicability of the Excessive Fines Clause, Judge Bianco noted that this decision was based upon the allegations and not the argument that the fine was unconstitutionally excessive or disproportionate.
Long Islanders regularly feel increasing government fines, from recording a deed to fines associated with routine traffic matters. “The misuse of the forfeiture statutes has become epidemic among local and state police departments. Too often, it leads to baroque corruption, and it also functions as a backdoor way to fund basic services in municipalities that don't have the guts to ask their citizens for tax increases.” In Timbs, it was argued that the car in rural Indiana was “incidental not instrumental” to the sale of drugs. Where the incorporation of the Second Amendment to the states has recently led to a Federal District Court declaring that the nunchaku ban is void as violative of the Second Amendment, perhaps we will see the regular forfeiture of vehicles in driving while intoxicated cases, the taking of expensive phones, the doubling and tripling of traffic fines or the threat of daily fines offered by municipal entities be addressed in the years to come.
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