Bearden v. Georgia

Summary of the Cause of Action

Petitioner was sentenced to probation, a fine, and restitution after he pled guilty to burglary and theft. The court imposed a $500 fine and $250 in restitution, with $100 payable that day, $100 the next day, and the $550 balance within four months. Petitioner borrowed money and paid the first $200, but about a month later he was laid off from his job, and, despite repeated efforts, was unable to find other work. The State filed a petition to revoke petitioner’s probation because he had not paid the balance, and the trial court, after a hearing, revoked probation, entered a conviction, and sentenced petitioner to prison. The record of the hearing disclosed that petitioner had been unable to find employment and had no assets or income. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected petitioner’s claim that imprisoning him for inability to pay the fine and make restitution violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Georgia Supreme Court denied review.


In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice O’Connor’s opinion – joined by four other justices – is seminal. She describes the case as one where “due process and equal protection principles converge,” and warns that “whether analyzed in terms of equal protection or due process, the issue cannot be resolved by resort to easy slogans or pigeonhole analysis.” Instead, the Court adopted the four-part standard, first articulated in Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235 (1970). The Court must assess: (1) the nature of the individual interest affected, (2) the extent to which it is affected, (3) the rationality of the connection between the legislative means and purpose, and (4) the existence of alternative means to effectuate this purpose.

After examining those factors, the court held: “[I]n revocation proceedings for failure to pay a fine or restitution, a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay. If the probationer willfully refused to pay or failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts legally to acquire the resources to pay, the court may revoke probation and sentence the defendant to imprisonment within the authorized range of its sentencing authority. If the probationer could not pay despite sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to do so, the court must consider alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment. Only if alternative measures are not adequate to meet the State’s interests in punishment and deterrence may the court imprison a probationer who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay. To do otherwise would deprive the probationer of his conditional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay the fine. Such a deprivation would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

You can read the full text of the Supreme Court opinion here.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
461 U.S. 660, (1983)
May 24, 1983
James H. Lohr