Rule of Law

Tyler v. Hennepin County

In Tyler v. Hennepin County, the Supreme Court is considering whether the government’s seizure of a property worth far more than needed to satisfy a debt constitutes a fine within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

Case Summary

After 94-year-old Minnesota resident Geraldine Tyler failed to pay property taxes on her former home in Hennepin County, the County seized the property and sold it at auction for $40,000. Even though Tyler owed only $15,000 in past-due taxes, interest, and costs to the County, pursuant to Minnesota law, the County retained the surplus $25,000 from the sale rather than refunding it to Tyler.

Tyler filed suit against the County, arguing that by keeping the extra $25,000, Hennepin County violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment (among other constitutional provisions). However, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed the suit, holding that the County’s retention of the surplus funds did not constitute a “fine” because the sanction’s “primary purpose” was remedial rather than punitive, and it was not connected to any “criminal behavior.”

After the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s Excessive Fines Clause ruling without even conducting its own analysis, Tyler asked the Supreme Court to hear her case, and the Court agreed to do so.

CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Tyler, urging the court to vacate the Eighth Circuit’s decision and make clear the proper, straightforward test for what constitutes a “fine” under the Eighth Amendment: whether the payment serves in part to punish, period. Our brief makes three main points.

First, we explain that the historical roots of the Excessive Fines Clause make clear that it applies to financial penalties that are not just punitive, but also serve remedial purposes. The Excessive Fines Clause was taken nearly verbatim from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which in turn codified Magna Carta’s guarantee that excessive financial payments—then known as “amercements”—would not be extracted.  Amercements were neither civil nor criminal in nature. Though they were generally imposed to sanction wrongful (though not necessarily criminal) conduct, they also served remedial purposes—that is, they repaid the costs that the community or the Crown had incurred as a result of the wrongdoing.

During the seventeenth century, the modern-day fine replaced the amercement as the preferred financial sanction. In that same period, despite Magna Carta’s guarantees, the Stuart kings increasingly abused their power to extract financial payments, ultimately leading to the recodification of Magna Carta’s protections in the English Bill of Rights. Across the Atlantic, that same protection was written into the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was eventually adopted word-for-word as the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

As our brief describes, colonial and early American records also make clear that the Founding generation did not draw sharp distinctions between remedial and punitive economic sanctions, and thus would not have viewed the Excessive Fines Clause as applying to only those payments that served exclusively punitive purposes. Indeed, in early America, a wealth of economic sanctions explicitly called “fines” were used for partially, or even primarily, remedial purposes. Further, early statutes expressly, and frequently, stated that fines collected as punishment would go toward these remedial purposes.

Second, our brief explains that under the Supreme Court’s precedents, a remedial sanction falls within the ambit of the Excessive Fines Clause so long as it also serves a partially punitive purpose. The Court made this explicit in Austin v. United States when it rejected the argument that an in rem forfeiture was beyond the scope of the Excessive Fines Clause because it also served remedial purposes and was imposed in a civil—not criminal—proceeding.  And in every case to interpret the Excessive Fines Clause since Austin, the Court has expressly reaffirmed this holding.

Finally, our brief argues that the courts below erred by fixating on the “primary purpose” of the financial penalty and the fact that it was not linked to any criminal conduct. Even assuming that the “primary purpose” of Minnesota’s tax forfeiture scheme is remedial, the Supreme Court has never held or even suggested that the “primary purpose” of a financial payment determines whether it is a fine. To the contrary, the Court has made clear that as long as a payment serves at least some punitive purpose, it is a fine even if its “primary purpose” is remedial and even if it is imposed in a civil proceeding.

Thus, to ensure that the Excessive Fines Clause can continue to play its important role in guarding against government abuse and overreach, our brief concludes by asking the Supreme Court to correct the errors of the lower courts and vacate the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

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