In 1791, Congress passed a series of ten amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments include many of the protections we hold most dear, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protections for those accused of a crime.
The Eighth Amendment addresses several issues related to this last point, specifically what kind of punishments can be handed out. Most people have heard of the protection against "cruel and unusual" punishment, but the Eighth Amendment also prohibits excessive bail and fines.
When is bail considered excessive under the 8th Amendment?
Courts are expected to set bail amounts that are "reasonably calculated to ensure the asserted governmental interest." But, obviously, that's open to interpretation. The government interest at issue can be many different things. Is the defendant a flight risk? Is there a chance they'll destroy evidence or hurt someone? If the bail amount is more than necessary to prevent one of these harms, it might be excessive under the 8th Amendment.
Does money bail violate the 8th Amendment?
Some legal scholars argue that the cash bail system unconstitutionally punishes poverty. Under Robinson v. California, the Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from punishing someone based on a "status or condition." Although the court has not yet extended that ruling to include financial status, there are arguments to be made that money bail unfairly impacts poor defendants.
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
"This traditional right to freedom before conviction permits the unhampered preparation of a defense, and serves to prevent the infliction of punishment prior to conviction. . . . Unless this right to bail before trial is preserved, the presumption of innocence, secured only after centuries of struggle, would lose its meaning."1
"The bail clause was lifted with slight changes from the English Bill of Rights Act. In England that clause has never been thought to accord a right to bail in all cases, but merely to provide that bail shall not be excessive in those cases where it is proper to grant bail. When this clause was carried over into our Bill of Rights, nothing was said that indicated any different concept."2
These two contrasting views of the "excessive bail" provision, expressed by the Court in the same Term, reflect the ambiguity inherent in the phrase and the absence of evidence regarding the intent of those who drafted and who ratified the Eighth Amendment.3
The history of the bail controversy in England is crucial to understanding why the ambiguity exists.4 The Statute of Westminster the First of 12755 set forth a detailed enumeration of those offenses that were bailable and those that were not, and, though supplemented by later statutes, it served for something like five and a half centuries as the basic authority.6 Darnel's Case,7 in which the judges permitted the continued imprisonment of persons without bail merely upon the order of the King, was one of the moving factors in the enactment of the Petition of Right in 1628.8 The Petition cited the Magna Carta as proscribing the kind of detention that was permitted in Darnel's Case. The right to bail was again subverted a half-century later by various technical subterfuges by which petitions for habeas corpus could not be presented,9 and Parliament reacted by enacting the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679,10 which established procedures for effectuating release from imprisonment and provided penalties for judges who did not comply with the Act. That avenue closed, the judges then set bail so high that it could not be met, and Parliament responded by including in the Bill of Rights of 168911 a provision "[t]hat excessive bail ought not to be required." This language, along with essentially the rest of the present Eighth Amendment, was included within the Virginia Declaration of Rights,12 was picked up in the Virginia recommendations for inclusion in a federal bill of rights by the state ratifying convention,13 and was introduced verbatim by Madison in the House of Representatives.14
Thus, in England, the right to bail generally was conferred by the basic 1275 statute, as supplemented; the procedure for assuring access to the right was conferred by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679; and protection against abridgement through the fixing of excessive bail was conferred by the Bill of Rights of 1689. In the United States, the Constitution protected habeas corpus in Article 1, § 9, but did not confer a right to bail. The question is, therefore, whether the First Congress in proposing the Bill of Rights knowingly sought to curtail excessive bail without guaranteeing a right to bail, or whether the phrase "excessive bail" was meant to be a shorthand expression of both rights.
Compounding the ambiguity is a distinctive trend in the United States that had its origin in a provision of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 164115 guaranteeing bail to every accused person except those charged with a capital crime or contempt in open court. Copied in several state constitutions,16 this guarantee was contained in the Northwest Ordinance in 1787,17 along with a guarantee of moderate fines and against cruel and unusual punishments and was inserted in the Judiciary Act of 1789,18 enacted contemporaneously with the passage through Congress of the Bill of Rights. It appears, therefore, that Congress was aware in 1789 that certain language conveyed a right to bail and that other language merely protected against one means by which a pre-existing right to bail could be abridged.
The Court first tested and upheld under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment a state statute providing for preventive detention of juveniles.19 Then, in United States v. Salerno,20 the Court upheld the application of preventive detention provisions of the Bail Reform Act of 1984 against facial challenge under the Eighth Amendment. The function of bail, the Court explained, is limited neither to preventing flight of the defendant prior to trial nor to safeguarding a court's role in adjudicating guilt or innocence:
"[W]e reject the proposition that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits the government from pursuing other admittedly compelling interests through regulation of pretrial release."21
Instead, "[t]he only arguable substantive limitation of the Bail Clause is that the government's proposed conditions of release or detention not be 'excessive' in light of the perceived evil."22
"[D]etention prior to trial of arrestees charged with serious felonies who are found after an adversary hearing to pose a threat to the safety of individuals or to the community which no condition of release can dispel" satisfies this requirement.23
Bail is "excessive" in violation of the Eighth Amendment when it is set at a figure higher than an amount reasonably calculated to ensure the asserted governmental interest.24 If the only asserted interest is to guarantee that the accused will stand trial and submit to sentence if found guilty, then "bail must be set by a court at a sum designed to ensure that goal, and no more."25 To challenge bail as excessive, one must move for a reduction, and, if that motion is denied, appeal to the Court of Appeals, and, if unsuccessful, appeal to the Supreme Court Justice sitting for that circuit.26 The Amendment is apparently inapplicable to postconviction release pending appeal, but the practice has apparently been to grant such releases.27
For years the Supreme Court had little to say about excessive fines. In an early case, it held that it had no appellate jurisdiction to revise the sentence of an inferior court, even though the excessiveness of the fines was apparent on the face of the record.28 Justice Brandeis once contended in dissent that the denial of second-class mailing privileges to a newspaper on the basis of its past conduct because it imposed additional mailing costs which grew day by day, amounted to an unlimited fine that was an "unusual" and "unprecedented" punishment proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.29
The Court has elected to deal with the issue of fines levied upon indigents, resulting in imprisonment upon the inability to pay, in terms of the Equal Protection Clause,30 thus obviating any necessity to develop the meaning of "excessive fines" in relation to ability to pay. The Court has held the clause inapplicable to civil jury awards of punitive damages in cases between private parties, "when the government neither has prosecuted the action nor has any right to receive a share of the damages awarded."31
The Court based this conclusion on a review of the history and purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause. At the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, the Court noted, "the word 'fine' was understood to mean a payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense."32 The Eighth Amendment itself, as were antecedents of the clause in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, "clearly was adopted with the particular intent of placing limits on the powers of the new government."33 Therefore, while leaving open the issues of whether the clause has any applicability to civil penalties or to qui tam actions, the Court determined that "the Excessive Fines Clause was intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by, and payable to, the government."34 The Court has held, however, that the Excessive Fines Clause can be applied in civil forfeiture cases.35
In 1998, however, the Court injected vitality into the strictures of the clause. "The touchstone of the constitutional inquiry under the Excessive Fines Clause 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."36
In United States v. Bajakajian,37 the government sought to require that a criminal defendant charged with violating federal reporting requirements regarding the transportation of more than $10,000 in currency out of the country forfeit the currency involved, which totaled $357,144. The Court held that the forfeiture38 in this particular case violated the Excessive Fines Clause because the amount forfeited was "grossly disproportionate to the gravity of defendant's offense."39 In determining proportionality, the Court did not limit itself to a comparison of the fine amount to the proven offense, but it also considered the particular facts of the case, the character of the defendant, and the harm caused by the offense.40