State v. Gibbons

1. Whether a law that imposed a $5,000 mandatory minimum fine without regard to the defendant’s ability to pay, is facially unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause of both the U.S. and Montana constitutions?

1. Yes, both the U.S. and Montana Constitutions prohibit a statute that imposes a mandatory minimum fine of $5,000 because it prevents a sentencing judge from considering “the offender’s resources and the nature of the burden created by the fine” as required by the prohibitions against excessive fines.

The plaintiff was convicted of  driving under the influence (DUI) and ultimately sentenced to five years in prison and, pursuant to § 61-8-731(3), given a $5,000 mandatory minimum fine.  At the sentencing hearing,  Mr. Gibbons’ defense counsel asked the Court to consider his client’s inability to pay and to either not impose or to reduce the fines. The presentence report noted that Mr. Gibbons was unhoused, living in a camper attached to his truck, and that he had a total monthly income of approximately $1,431 from a small pension payment and his social security income. He was also $9,000 in debt. Without inquiring further, the District Court imposed the mandatory minimum $5,000 fine but did not order any other costs or fees.

Gibbons appealed the District Court conviction and sentence directly to the Montana Supreme Court on several claims, including the unconstitutionality of the mandatory fine. 

Court’s Reasoning
The Montana Supreme Court acknowledged that the principle of “proportionality forms the touchstone to the consideration of a fine’s excessiveness,” citing long-standing U.S. Supreme Court precedent United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998). Drawing from the historical and contextual underpinnings of the Excessive Fines Clause, the court pointed out that “the Supreme Court emphasized that an individual’s ability to pay was historically an essential factor in determining a fine’s excessiveness” and that “that economic punishment must be proportioned to the wrong and not be so large as to deprive an offender of his livelihood.”  (Citing Indiana v. Timbs, 139 S.Ct. 682, 687-89 (2019)). Although the legislature is often provided significant deference when it comes to intent of statutes, the intent of the legislature must be read in conjunction with other statutes and is subject to restrictions from the state and federal constitutions. At base, “mandatory minimum sentencing laws eliminate judicial discretion to impose sentences below the statutory minimum” and “can produce punishment that is disproportionate and unjust when the offender’s ability to pay is not considered,” as is required by the state and federal constitutions.

You can find the court’s full opinion here.

State v. Gibbons
2024 MT 63 (Mont. March 2024)