The Constitutionality of Fines: A Look at State v. Cotton

In today’s world, we know that there aren’t too many things in life that are free. We have to pay for the food we eat and the place in which we live. Likewise, if we do something wrong, we also have to pay, and depending on the circumstances, the payment can be quite steep.

Most Bradenton criminal defense attorneys will tell you that it is not uncommon to be charged a fine if you commit a crime. However, a recent Florida case took a look at the constitutionality of one fine in particular.

State v. Cotton

Generally speaking, individuals are protected by the 8th Amendment against the government charging excessive fines. But how will we know when a fine doesn’t fit the crime? In the Florida case of State v. Cotton, Cotton was convicted of soliciting a prostitute, which is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida. In the past, that meant that an individual convicted of such a crime could face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

However, Florida’s laws regarding solicitation changed a few years ago and now, there’s a mandatory $5,000 fine associated with the crime. Nevertheless, the lower court judge believed that $5,000 was excessive, and as such, it was deemed to be unconstitutional in violation of the 8th Amendment. The State appealed the court’s ruling.

What Happened on Appeal?

Ultimately, the District Court of Appeal noted that the legislature found the $5,000 fine to be appropriate in such cases — and so do they. Specifically, the Court stated that it did not view the fine as “patently oppressive or grossly disproportionate as applied to Cotton.” The Court agreed with the State’s argument that the fine was a “relatively modest amount by today’s standards.”

The Court noted in its conclusion that, while the $5,000 fine applied in Cotton approached the “outer limits of constitutionality,” it did not find it to be excessive. Accordingly, the lower court’s decision was reversed and the case was remanded to impose the fine.

What Does This Mean for You?

The appellate court in Cotton noted the importance of fines being proportionate with the seriousness of the offense. Still, the court did not specifically address the seriousness of the offense at issue — except to mention that “vice crimes” are bad for society. Additionally, the court stated that strict proportionality is not the standard and added that there is no “bright-line ratio” used to determine whether or not a fine is excessive.

The court further explained its logic, finding that since a third solicitation offense is considered a felony, which carries a maximum fine of $5,000, imposing that same fine on a first-time offender must be constitutional.

In many situations, however, first-time offenders are often subject to a much lower punishment than a third-time offender. That said, it should come as no surprise that many people take issue with the appellate court’s decision, as most people find such a fine to be excessive — particularly when the fine associated with domestic battery (which, in the minds of most people is far more serious) is only $1,000.

The crimes associated with a $5,000 civil penalty typically include third-degree robbery, third-degree grand theft, third-degree child abuse, aggravated stalking and things of that nature — all of which come with a maximum of five years in a state prison.

If you or a loved one has questions about the constitutionality of your fine or any other concerns about your case, please call the Fowler Law Group at (941) 900-3100 as soon as possible to ensure your rights are preserved.

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