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Day-fines are a type of fine, common in many European countries, in which the amount of the fine is based on both the severity of the offense and the income of the offender; thus, an investment banker will be fined more than a fast food worker for the same offense.

This system is not widely used in the United States, but it has seen some use:

The New York Times reported on an experiment with day fines which took place in 1988 in Staten Island, which was a partnership between the local courts and District Attorney, and the Vera Institute of Justice. In addition to Staten Island, day fines experiments have also been piloted in Maricopa County, Arizona; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Polk County, Iowa; four counties in Oregon; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. An additional project was set up for Ventura County, California, but never ultimately implemented. According to the National Center for Access to Justice, Oklahoma is the only state in the U.S. that "has taken one or more specific steps to mandate, encourage or facilitate courts’ use of individualized fines (“day fines”) that are scaled according to both the severity of the offense and the individual’s economic status."

However, it seems to me that it could possibly violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:

[No state shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Since the hypothetical investment banker is fined more than the fast food worker, despite the fact that their offenses were the same, it seems that the banker may be able to claim that the fine violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

As a possible counterargument, the state could claim that because the fines are designed to have equal effects on everyone, taking into consideration their financial circumstances, there is no equal-protection issue. However, I don't see how this claim could be made without requiring all fines to be day-fines, and it's highly unlikely that the vast majority of fines imposed in the United States are actually unconstitutional and no one has noticed this.

Has the constitutionality of day-fines in the United States ever been challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, or any other part of the Constitution?

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    Consider that cash bail is legal, even if different people get different amounts.
    – o.m.
    Dec 18, 2023 at 6:04
  • Sidenote on the "why not for all fines": it is not worth the effort of finding out what someone makes, to issue them a 10$ or even 50$ fine. For example, where I live, the minimum amount calculated this way would be 5 days. I guess anything less and it isn't worth all the effort. The answer in many countries might well be "we do it for all, unless it's not cost effective for the expected sum".
    – nvoigt
    Dec 18, 2023 at 8:09
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    By the same argument, prison sentences are unconstitutional because an investment banker who cannot work because he is in prison loses a lot more money than a fast food worker. In fact, at least in Germany, day-fines can either be paid in money or in prison time, and the idea is exactly that a day-fine should roughly correspond to what one would earn in a day so paying it or spending a day in prison should roughly have the same effect. Dec 18, 2023 at 12:44
  • To the best of my knowledge, there is no case law on point. In part, this may be because it has only been tried by a small number of jurisdictions for limited time trials.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 18, 2023 at 21:47
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    @ohwilleke I added that text into the question.
    – Someone
    Dec 18, 2023 at 21:52

1 Answer 1

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Has the constitutionality of day-fines in the United States ever been challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, or any other part of the Constitution?

A quick search of the case law in the relevant states finds no cases addressing the constitutionality of this practice. If it is out there, it is described with terminology different than the terminology used in the question.

It is a question of first impression.

Realistically, I would be surprised, but not shocked, if such a law were held unconstitutional.

In civil cases, ability to pay may be lawfully considered in assessing punitive damages. The limit on the number of days of income for the fine that are allowed for a specific offense also assures some level of proportionality between the crime and the punishment. There is also the comparison of the economic effect of incarceration, which is clearly constitutional and which has a similar economic effect.

On the other hand, punitive damages must not exceed some reasonable multiple (often 3x for large amounts) of the compensatory harm caused by the wrongdoing. But that analogy breaks down in criminal cases where there is not necessarily a compensatory harm to compare the fine to in a given case.

In addition to the 14th Amendment equal protection clause, the other relevant U.S. Constitutional provision is the jurisprudence of the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution. This was only recently held to apply to state and local governments, and is, in general, quite thin. Few cases have addressed it boundaries.

The Supreme Court has held that the Excessive Fines Clause prohibits fines that are "so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law". The Court struck down a fine as excessive for the first time in United States v. Bajakajian [524 U.S. 321] (1998). . . . The Supreme Court has ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause and the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause apply to the states[.]

(Source)

The case first applying the excessive fines clause of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to state and local governments was Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019).

Most or all of the state and local experiments with day-fines pre-date Timbs, and thus wouldn't have implicated a well-established federal constitutional right at that time.

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