The federal government and state governments increasingly rely upon fines and forfeitures to enforce civil laws ranging from simple land-use laws to complex securities laws. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has failed to clearly articulate when these sanctions are considered punitive, such that they qualify for scrutiny under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court recently decided Tyler v. Hennepin County, which involved the forfeiture of a home for unpaid property taxes worth a fraction of the home’s value. The Tyler Court declined to address the excessive fines claim, despite the forfeiture having multiple punitive characteristics, and instead resolved the case only as it related to the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Ultimately, the Court’s decision may best be understood as a recognition that property tax delinquency absent fraud or willful misconduct is such that any punitive fine or forfeiture is constitutionally barred.
Associate Professor of Law, Baylor Law School. I am grateful for helpful conversations about this Essay with Christina M. Martin, who represented Geraldine Tyler in her case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The arguments and viewpoints presented herein, however, are my own. Thank you to Nicholas Almendares and Julia Mahoney, as well as Christopher Brett Jaeger and Rachel Kincaid for thoughtful comments and suggestions. I also thank Haylie English, for her excellent research assistance, as well as the staff of the Northwestern University Law Review Online for their outstanding editorial work.
Copyright 2023 by Jessica L. Asbridge
Cite as: Jessica L. Asbridge, Tax Forfeitures and the Excessive Fines Muddle, 118 Nw. U. L. Rev. Online 170 (2023), https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1337&context=nulr_online.