Supreme Court applies ban on excessive fines Constitutional protection wielded for first time to deny government appeal

June 23, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For 207 years, the Constitution has outlawed criminal fines that are "excessive." Yesterday, for the first time, a fine the government wanted to impose ran afoul of that clause, as the Supreme Court limited officials' power to punish crime with heavy financial charges.

With Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the court's most conservative members, departing from his usual allies to write for a 5-4 majority, the court said that a fine of $357,144 would be too high for a man who tried to carry that sum in cash out of the country without informing the U.S. Treasury.

Such a large forfeiture, the court said, would amount to the government's taking over the man's property -- all the cash he had with him on a planned trip to Cyprus to pay a lawful debt. Such a fine could not pass constitutional muster, the court concluded, under a newly set standard: Fines used as criminal penalties are invalid if they are "grossly" out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime.

The money, Thomas wrote, was not the proceeds of a crime and was not connected to anyone else's crime. The only crime committed by Hosep Kirkor Bajakajian, a gas station operator from North Hollywood, Calif., Thomas said, "was solely a reporting offense" -- failure to notify the Treasury that he was leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash.

"He is not a money launderer, a drug trafficker, or a tax evader," Thomas said of Bajakajian. "The harm he caused was minimal. Had his crime gone undetected, the government would have been deprived only of the information that $357,144 had left the country."

The government argued that the full $357,144 value of the money should be taken away as the fine.

The court did not say how much lower the fine had to be to avoid being considered excessive. It left that matter to lower federal courts to decide.

The unusual combination of justices in the majority was made up of Thomas and the liberal or centrist members: Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Dissenting were four conservatives: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the minority opinion, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia.

The dissenters said the ruling "jeopardizes a vast range of fines" for federal crimes, because courts will now second-guess Congress' view on when a crime is serious enough to justify a large financial penalty.

In another 5-4 decision, the court ruled in a Pennsylvania case that evidence police illegally obtain from a person out of prison on parole may be used as a basis for ending parole and sending the parolee back to prison. Thomas wrote that ruling and this time was joined by his four conservative colleagues.

The court also:

Voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that companies that provide online services for computer users are immune under federal law to lawsuits based on harms caused by those who post information online. The case involved a Seattle man who was the victim of a computer hoax that falsely pointed to him as the peddler of T-shirts containing vicious slogans about the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Refused to hear a constitutional challenge to the use of the federal endangered species law to protect the habitat of a "flower-loving fly" that lives only in an 8-square-mile area of Southern California. Planners of a hospital have been required to make changes to accommodate the fly.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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