In the United States, there are certain situations where you must pay a fine that government in the United States puts upon someone.

However, is it legal to impose a fine greater than what a person is capable of paying? Let's say a homeless man (no income, no assets) commits a felony, and must pay back a fine of $100,000. Is that legal? Most laws say that X felony/misdemeanor deserves "a maximum of $X fine, X amount of years imprisonment, or both." Anyone can serve imprisonment. Not everyone can pay a fine.

If it is, what happens when they don't pay the fine? Can the fine incrue interest? Can you declare bankruptcy on a fine?


Bankruptcy does not obliterate legal financial obligations (taxes that you owe, fines, etc.). Fines either do or do not (any more) accrue interest, depending on jurisdiction. Fines for criminal conviction can accrue interest. By law, no fine can be unreasonable, but there is no simple determination of what is reasonable versus unreasonable. The matter reduces to whether the penalty would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. Federal law suggests a upper-ballpark of $250,000 for an individual felony or $5,000 for an infraction, but there is no actual upper limit, for example a crime resulting in pecuniary gain may receive a fine of twice that gain, so fines can be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The government can seize property including wages in order to satisfy a legal financial obligation. However, you can not be imprisoned because of an unpaid fine, although you can be imprisoned for willfully not paying a fine when ordered to do so (there is no legal clarity as to what constitutes "willful" non-payment). As noted in this article, seemingly small fines can balloon to large sums (they cite an example of a 4-fold increase in initial fine owing to interest and similar increases.


The original fine must be considered reasonable, but that reasonableness is tied to the offense/infraction, not to your income. As an example, a huge fine for dumping a truckload of toxic waste might be considered reasonable there, but considered unreasonable if equally applied to dropping a cigarette butt out your car window. It must be commensurate with the infraction, not your income.

The same cannot be said about penalty for not paying your fine. The purpose of a penalty is not to fine you further, but to incentivize you to pay the original fine when it is due. You are correct in your inference that there can be multiple reasons for not paying a fine, but a claimed inability to pay it would certainly be very abused.

In such cases where you can't afford to pay it all at once, it is often wise to contact the fining authority and determine if there's a way to pay the fine over time. Waiting till later or after it is due almost guarantees that there's nothing anyone can or will do about it. This is true in most circumstances like when you can't pay a medical bill, tax bill, or power bill. After they've taken their action against you, it is far less likely to be reversed.

  • Legal citations? How is your answer more comprehensive than other answers? Jun 2 '20 at 22:12

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