Whether courts must consider a person’s ability to pay a fine when determining whether the fine is excessive under the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Washington State constitution.
Yes. In addition to the traditional four factors considered by Washington courts in an excessive fines analysis, a court must also consider a person’s ability to pay.
The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), responsible for monitoring the legality of political financing, and later the Attorney General, investigated anti-tax initiative promoter Tim Eyman for “multiple apparent violations” of state law alleged to have occurred between 2012 and 2016. Based on court findings that Eyman did in fact violate the law, he was ordered to pay a penalty of $2.6 million plus $2.9 in attorney fees and state costs. At the Washington Court of Appeals, Eyman argued that the financial penalty imposed violated the Excessive Fines Clause because he did not have the ability to pay it. Furthermore, the trial court’s failure to consider his ability to pay warranted remand to hear evidence and adjust the penalty if necessary to comply with the Excessive Fines Clause of the federal and state constitutions.
In March 2017, the State of Washington brought a civil action against Eyman alleging violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA). In February 2021, after a nine-day trial, the Thurston County Superior Court found Eyman in violation of the FCPA, levied a civil penalty of over $2.6 million, and issued an injunction prohibiting Eyman from engaging in various political committee-related activities. In April 2021, The Thurston County Superior Court ordered Eyman to pay an additional $2.9 million to cover attorney fees and other state costs. The Washington Supreme Court denied Eyman’s request for direct review and a stay of injunction and transferred the case to the Court of Appeals.
Appellate Court’s Reasoning
The Appellate Court held that in addition to the four factors traditionally used to discern whether a fine is constitutionally excessive, the court must also consider a person’s ability to pay, citing City of Seattle v. Long. Here, the trial court failed to assess Eyman’s ability to pay by sustaining the State’s objection when Eyman attempted to testify about his personal finances. In light of the lack of evidence on Eyman’s ability to pay, the Appellate Court held that it had “no choice” but to remand the case to the trial court in order to afford Eyman the opportunity to present evidence regarding his ability to pay, and if appropriate, to adjust the monetary penalty previously imposed.
You can read the court’s opinion here.
State of Washington v. Eyman
Court of Appeals of Washington
December 6, 2022
521 P.3d 265