A criminal fine is a type criminal punishment that is imposed against those who violate the law. Criminal fines are mostly reserved for less serious and non-violent crimes. Their main purpose is to provide deterrence and punishment for the defendant, in attempts to prevent them from committing repeat offenses.

Thus, criminal fines are sometimes available as an alternative to a normal criminal sentence, such as time in jail or prison. However, it is not uncommon for a judge to require the defendant to both serve a jail sentence and pay a fine. 

How Are the Amounts of a Criminal Fine Decided?

A criminal fine may be decided by any of three basic methods:

  • Statute: A state or federal law may prescribe the exact amount that a defendant must pay as a result of guilty charges.  For example, the statute may state, “Any person who is convicted of this crime shall pay a fine of $5,000”.  The statute may also place a limit on the amount for the fine, for example, “no more than $5,000”.
  • Type of Crime: Sometimes the amount of the fine depends on the type of crime.  For example, a criminal fine for theft may be “equal to the amount of money stolen”.  Or, for a property crime, the fine may be “twice the amount of the property damage”. 
  • Judge’s Discretion: Many jurisdictions allow a judge to determine the amount of fines according to what they feel is appropriate.  The judge may also require a fine in addition to other penalties such as a prison sentence or mandatory counseling.

Thus, a criminal fine may or may not be set in stone.  If the fine is determined by statute, the defendant is likely to have a difficult time arguing for a reduced fine.  On the other hand, if the fine was determined by the judge, there is a possibility that the defendant and their lawyer can present evidence supporting a reduction in fines.

What If a Defendant Cannot Pay a Criminal Fine?

There is a big difference between simply refusing to pay a criminal fine, versus not being able to pay for the fine. If the defendant simply refuses to pay, this is often considered another violation and may lead to further legal consequences. For example, the defendant may be placed in contempt of court, which can result in the imposition of the original sentence, more jail time, or yet another criminal fine.

On the other hand, a defendant is not let off the hook if they can’t afford to pay a criminal fine. A court will likely obtain the payment through a variety of court-enforced collection methods including:

  • Wage Garnishment: If the defendant is employed, the court garnish the person’s wages in order to satisfy the criminal fine.
  • Seizure of Property: A judge may require that the defendant’s personal property or financial assets be seized and sold at a public auction. The proceeds from the sale will then be used to pay the criminal fine.
  • Lien: A court may enforce a lien against the defendant’s real property, such as a home or condominium holding. The property will then be sold and the money will go towards the criminal fine.

If the defendant feels that a fine is too high in comparison to the crime committed, they may be able to persuade the judge to reduce or waive the fines. For example, a defendant may have a claim under the 8th Amendment, which prohibits courts from imposing excessive fines.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are facing criminal charges or are being required to pay a criminal fine, you should absolutely speak with a criminal defense lawyer for advice. It is undoubtedly to your advantage to work with an experienced and knowledgeable attorney who will be able examine the charges you are facing to determine whether a fine is appropriate, or whether it may be waived or reduced.