Criminal punishments are punishments faced by someone convicted of committing a crime. The most common criminal punishments include incarceration, probation, fines, or any combination of those punishments. Other criminal punishments include community service, alternative sentencing, diversion programs, or in the most severe circumstances, the death penalty. Criminal fines are generally reserved for less serious offenses, such as non-violent crimes, shoplifting, drug possession, etc.

The main purpose of criminal fines is to deter the criminal from committing more crimes, as well as to punish them for the crime they have already committed. As such, criminal fines are sometimes provided as an alternative to normal criminal sentencing, such as jail time or prison. However, it is not uncommon for a judge to require that a defendant serves jail time in addition to paying a fine.

Criminal fines are to be paid to the state, or the local or federal government that prosecuted the crime. These fines may be determined by one of the following three basic methods:

  • Statute: A specific statute may state that criminals convicted of a specific crime are to pay a fine of $5,000. State or federal law may prescribe the exact amount that a defendant must pay as a result of a guilty charge. Statutes may also place a limit on the amount of the fine to be paid, such as stating that the fine may be no more than $5,000;
  • Type of Crime: The amount of fine to be paid may be based on the type of crime committed. An example of this would be a criminal fine for theft that may be equal to the amount of money stolen. For a property crime, the fine may be twice the amount of the property damage. As previously mentioned, criminal fines are generally reserved for less serious crimes and non-violent offenses; or
  • Judge’s Discretion: Many jurisdictions allow for the presiding judge to determine the amount of criminal fines according to what they feel is appropriate. The judge may also require a fine in addition to other penalties. Examples of this include prison sentencing, mandatory counseling, and community service.

As you can see, criminal fines may not necessarily be set in stone, as the amount to be paid can be influenced by several factors. Additionally, if the fine is determined by statute, the defendant is more likely to have a difficult time arguing for a reduced or lower fine. If the fine amount was determined by a judge, there is a possibility that the defendant and their attorney could present evidence in favor of a reduced fine.

What if a Defendant Is Unable to Pay a Criminal Fine?

Refusing to pay a criminal fine is often considered to be an additional violation, one that could lead to further legal consequences such as being held in contempt of court. Contempt of court is any willful disobedience or disregard of a court order, and may be punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. Refusing to pay a criminal fine would most likely be considered indirect criminal contempt.

Being unable to pay a criminal fine is not likely to be considered to be contemptuous. However, the court will likely obtain the payment through a variety of court enforced collection methods. These methods generally include:

  • Wage Garnishment: If the defendant is employed, the court may garnish their wages in order to satisfy the criminal fine. Wage garnishment is when the court orders the defendant’s employer to take a portion of their paycheck to send to the court. It is generally the employer’s responsibility to calculate the amount to be paid which is typically taken out on a weekly basis. If the debt owed is large enough, the court will apply wage garnishment laws in order to force the defendant to repay some of the debt. This helps to avoid further increases in what they owe, which could force them into bankruptcy;
  • Seizure of Property: If a defendant is unable to pay their criminal fine, a judge may order that their personal property or financial assets be seized and sold at public auction. The proceeds from the sale of the property will then be used to pay off the criminal fine; and 
  • Lien: A lien is a legal term referring to a right to possess property that belongs to another person until that person has paid off a debt that they owe. As such, a judicial lien is placed on a debtor’s property in order to sell the property with the proceeds going towards the debt owed to the court. A court may enforce a lien against the defendant’s real property, such as a home or condo holding.

If the defendant feels that the imposed criminal fine is too high in comparison to the crime committed, they could ask that the judge reduce or waive the fine with a claim under the 8th Amendment. The 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits courts from imposing excessive fines, excessive bail to those being held in custody on suspicion of crime, and cruel and unusual punishment to those convicted of crime. 

Therefore, fines levied should be in proportion to the crime committed. Courts have generally ruled that fines become excessive when they are so high that they deprive the defendant of property without allowing them due process.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Criminal Fines?

You should consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney if you find yourself facing criminal fines. You should especially contact an attorney if you find yourself unable to pay criminal fines ordered against you. An experienced criminal defense attorney can examine the criminal fines and determine whether they violate the 8th Amendment, and can represent you in court as needed.