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What restrictions or prohibitions does the US Constitution or federal law set in place for states requiring citizens to pay money to the government?

If my understanding is correct, there are several "categories" of debts a state could enforce on citizens:

  • Fines for criminal convictions or civil infractions, provided the defendant's right to a fair trial was not infringed, and a proper sentence was issued by a judge, and/or the defendant plead guilty, etc.
  • Taxes, which I presume must be authorized and regulated by the US Constitution, but I don't know the details
  • Fees for specialized government services, e.g. business licensing fees, court fees, etc.

My questions mostly surround the fees category.
Namely, how are fees for government services justified under the US Constitution?

  • Does the US Constitution guarantee all citizens have the natural right to conduct their own business affairs?
    If so, does a citizen lose the right to legally own and operate a business if they cannot afford requisite state or local business license fees?

  • Likewise, does a citizen lose the right to utilize the court system to petition for a redress of grievances, if they cannot afford the requisite court fees?

  • And lastly, if a citizen is convicted of a crime or infraction, and the sentence requires the convict to utilize government services (e.g. prison services, probation services, registration services, etc.); under the US Constitution, can state government agencies providing these services legally require the convict to pay fees for these services (e.g. prison service fees, probation service fees, registration service fees), if these fees were not explicitly included in the sentence as fines?
    (Side question: even if a fine is included in the sentence, is it unconstitutional for the convict to be sentenced to pay an indefinitely recurring fine, e.g. annually or quarterly?)

If a state attempts to pass or enforce state legislation dictating such fees, should this legislation generally be struck down as unconstitutional?

It seems unreasonable to me that the government could legally compel a citizen to do something or follow some legal process, but then slap a fee on that service after-the-fact (without a court order), and deny the citizen certain rights if they do not pay the fee.

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    I think the basic question you are asking about is the scope of economic liberty under the US constitution. This is a large area of legal scholarship; have you read the Wikipedia pages on the Lochner era and New Deal? – Hasse1987 May 24 at 1:28
  • @Hasse1987 I'm reading it now, thanks for the tip! – Giffyguy May 24 at 1:29
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There are a number of issues here. The question mentions:

Taxes, which I presume must be authorized and regulated by the US Constitution, but I don't know the details

Not exactly. The states existed before the Federal government. They are not created by the Federal Constitution, nor authorized by it. A number of restrictions on state powers and actions are specified by the Federal Constitution, and a number of others are imposed by Federal law. (the Federal courts have found implied restrictions beyond the explicitly stated ones.) But there is no Federal provision granting states the power to impose taxes, only restrictions on that pre-existing power.

States cannot impose taxes so as to violate rights federally guaranteed, or to place unreasonable burdens on the exercise of those rights. For example, states cannot impose different taxes or tax rates on a racial basis. States cannot impose different taxes on residents of other states temporarily present in, or doing business in the state. States cannot impose different taxes on people newly moved there from other states, compared to long-established residents. State taxes must not violate the Equal Protection clause. However, states may choose the type and amount of taxes to impose. They can use sales tax, VAT tax, property tax, income tax, excise tax, flat tax, or any combination that their legislatures pass. Different taxes may be imposed on different professions or kinds of businesses.

Does the US Constitution guarantee all citizens have the natural right to conduct their own business affairs?

Not as such, no. The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses limit to some extent the ability of a state to prohibit a particular business on a whim. But when a state asserts that a particular business is harmful, and demonstrates a plausible basis for that view, so that the law passes "Rational basis" review, the state can prohibit it, or heavily regulate it, or license it.

If so, does a citizen lose the right to legally own and operate a business if they cannot afford requisite state or local business license fees?

A state may require a license to engage in a particular occupation, and may require a fee, one-time or recurring, high or low, for that license. In addition, a tax may be imposed on those in a particular business or profession, which is not imposed on other kinds of business. For example, in many states, lawyers must pay an annual license fee, or they are not allowed to practice. So must many other regulated professions, such as hairstylist. One who cannot afford the fee may not engage in the business or profession. The state may waive or reduce fees for those too poor to afford them, but need not do so, and many states do not so so.

Similarly, the state may charge a fee for a driver's license, and one who cannot pay it may not legally drive.

Likewise, does a citizen lose the right to utilize the court system to petition for a redress of grievances, if they cannot afford the requisite court fees?

Many states have provisions waiving or lowering court fees for those who cannot afford them, but in most cases this is applied only in severe cases, say where a person would have to go without food to afford court fees. There have been a few federal cases requiring fee waivers for those who cannot afford court fees, mostly in connection with criminal defendants. There is not currently a general federal rule requiring court access for those who cannot afford court fees. Perhaps there should be. A case could be made that Equal Protection requires this, but Federal Courts have not so held.

Federal courts have held that holding people in jail or prison because they truly cannot afford fines, bail, or court fees is an unconstitutional denial of Equal Protection. But states need not waive such fees; they can be deferred and charged should the person earn enough money to (just barely) afford them. Even this rule is not yet invariably enforced, and many state courts routinely ignore it.

By the way "petition for a redress of grievances" doe snot normally refer to bringing a court case, but to asking a legislature to change a law, or asking an administrator or executive to exercise permitted discretion in a particular way.

And lastly, if a citizen is convicted of a crime or infraction, and the sentence requires the convict to utilize government services (e.g. prison services, probation services, registration services, etc.); under the US Constitution, can state government agencies providing these services legally require the convict to pay fees for these services (e.g. prison service fees, probation service fees, registration service fees), if these fees were not explicitly included in the sentence as fines?

Yes it can impose such fees, but usually only when neither the convict nor his or her dependents will be impoverished by such fees, as I understand it.

If a state attempts to pass or enforce state legislation dictating such fees, should this legislation generally be struck down as unconstitutional?

Such laws will not be held unconstitutional by US Federal courts under the Federal Constitution, unless they are found to violate Equal Protection, Due Process, or other specifically imposed restrictions on the state. For example, fees which were in practice imposed on people of one religion, but not those of another, would be struck down. But a fee imposed on everyone will not usually be overturned.

"The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to steal bread from shops, beg in the streets, and sleep under bridges." -Anatole France

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    @Putvi By the constitution? Which provision do you refer to? The constitution permits Congress to admit new states, and to organize states in US Territory. (Art IV Sec 3) It does not authorize the existence of states, nor grant their basic powers. In particular it does not authorize states to impose taxes. – David Siegel May 23 at 22:19
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    Article VII sets procedures for ratifying the original constitution by the ten-existing states. The 10th amendment reserves unspecified right to "the states and the people thereof" Neither authorizes the states to exist, nor to do anything in particular, that I can see. – David Siegel May 23 at 22:23
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    @Putvi No i don't think so, and I have never read any legal scholar who asserts this. It is clear that the Fed Constitution expected that the states would exist. Indeed it depends on them in several ways, as they take a role in elections , and members of Congress come from the various states as well as various provisions which assume their existence. if anything, one could say that the states, by ratifying the Constitution, authorized the Federal Government, not the other way around. – David Siegel May 23 at 22:28
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    "But when a state asserts that a particular business is harmful, and demonstrates a plausible basis for that view, so that the law passes "Rational basis" review..." based on the preceding sentence, I think you mean to add here, "unless another right is implicated". For example, the gay wedding cake cases, where heightened review was triggered. – Hasse1987 May 24 at 1:13
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    "lawyers must pay an annual license fee, or they are not allowed to practice" Note bar dues are being challenged in many states right now on first amendment grounds, relying on the Janus decision from a few years ago that struck down dues as a condition of employment. Off the top of my head a DC requirement that tour guides obtain licenses was struck down on FA grounds a couple years ago. – Hasse1987 May 24 at 1:14
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  1. Yes. If you do not pay your water bill to a city water service, your business is isn't going to be serving beverages any time soon. It does cost money to provide these services and a lot of utilities are provided by the government at a local level (or the company has some close government oversight). Failure to renew licenses required by law to operate businesses (i.e. Health code violations... medical licenses, ceritifications) are "Necessary and Proper" clause methods to make sure that you're buisness is not providing a shoddy service to people who don't know better.

  2. This is not what is meant by "petition for a redress of grievances" in the First Amendment. The phrase here means the right to address citizen concerns to the United States Government, and today is mostly exercised through lobbying and protesting. At the federal level, so long as you aren't being problematic, you're perfectly capable of walking to a congressman/woman's office and discussing the matters with them (It will help if you're actually a voter in their constituency, because, you're someone who is going to decide if they can work in congress next term). Better yet, you can mail, e-mail, or even call their offices to voice your concerns. And anyone can chant "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Thing I hate has got to go!" Your rights in criminal cases (Government accusing you of a crime are derived from Amendments 4-8 of the Constitution).

  3. It depends on the situation. Speeding tickets only require you to pay the fine as your guilty plea. If you want to take the matter to court, you will be given the court fee but usually it's far less than the fine... most judges will assess the fee if they knock the fine down for using the service... if you don't want to pay the fee, pay the fine. In fact, in the U.S. 90% of all crimes are plead out before reaching a trial, as trials cost the state money too and they'd rather deal than pay too. In so far as I am aware, prison and services in that line are tax payer funded. In the case of Civil Court fees, the court fee is on the burden of the plaintiff or complainant to pay HOWEVER, almost every suit in the U.S. ever includes the reimbursement of the Plaintiff's legal fees as part of compensations found in the Plaintiff's favor. If the Plaintiff wins, the defense (who was in the legal wrong) pays the court for the service. If the plaintiff loses, than the plaintiff pays for the services. Civil Suits also rarely make it to trial as there are other costs incurred that make a settlement by the defense much more likely to occur.

BONUS: In all cases, if the fees or fines assessed cannot be paid by the person they are assessed to, they could be made in installments, but this is mostly to the fee's total and over a defined period of time. This is often worked out with a court clerk and not in the court room.

  • "In so far as I am aware, prison and services in that line are tax payer funded" This is my understanding as well. In which case, if a state passed a law stating the Dept. of Corrections will assess a service fee to people convicted of criminal offenses, this would blatantly fly in the face of these services being "taxpayer funded," and might even be a violation of due process, since the debtor is not given a trial/judgement/sentence regarding this fee, and obviously is not given a choice of whether to engage these government services of their own free will. Is this generally correct? – Giffyguy May 23 at 20:01
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    @Giffyguy: Well, not necessarily. The 13th Amendment of the United States, which abolished slavery, left an exception for involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes when duly convicted. At the time of writing, hard labor was seen as lenient punishment when compared to corporal and capital punishment. In the U.S. Prisoner labor is still used and compensation for work varies between programs, with community service sentences and prison maintenance jobs being generally unpaid, while other work is usually paid, but below minimum wage (due to high garnished wages). – hszmv May 28 at 13:46
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I read the comment you left and wanted to address it.

Allowing a penal institution to charge someone money is not a violation of due process, since the court does not sentence you there under the court's conditions. It sentences you there and there under the institution's conditions.

There are separate laws that govern the institution and that is the legal authority to charge you. The institution must also have a process for you to air concerns so that is your chance to voice an issue.

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    I've been thinking about this for a while now, and I think the issue is I don't actually agree that the institution gets to "make the rules." The institution has to operate under the law, not despite it. If the institution makes a rule that says certain prisoners get additional penalties without trial, that's still a violation of due process. The fact that the Dept. of Corrections made the rule to govern their own operation, doesn't stop it from being illegal, and a severe violation of constitutional rights. And again, we're talking about a scenario of state legislation, not prison policy. – Giffyguy May 24 at 1:22
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    You said "There are laws governing their ability to make rules within them." Are there laws that make the Dept. of Corrections exempt from liability for violating due process? I feel like they obviously have some liberty to run their operation as they see fit - but I can't imagine any law exempting the Dept. of Corrections from the constitution, would ever make it past judicial review. – Giffyguy May 24 at 1:31
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    No offense taken. Thanks for being patient with me. You are forced to go, legally compelled by a judge. If a judge issues a sentence of X, and the institution says "Well our rules say that the sentence really should be XY (with an added fine)," that's the violation of due process I'm referring to, since they are modifying your sentence. An added financial fee is a penalty, not simply a "rule." Furthermore, making internal rules that people owe them money fits the definition of extortion under organized crime law. It's an illegitimate form of debt. – Giffyguy May 24 at 17:18
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    That is not a fine though. That is paying for services. A fine is the court says you must pay x as a punishment, under the law. You are expanding the word to include any payment. – Putvi May 24 at 17:19
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    As someone who worked at a correctional intuition for over 10 years, they don't just tack on money randomly, they charge you for things that cost them money. Again, I don't mean to belittle your ideas, but that is just very different than randomly saying give me your money. – Putvi May 24 at 17:21

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