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Monetary charges imposed upon individuals who have been convicted of a crime or a lesser offense.

A fine is a criminal sanction. A civil sanction, by contrast, is called a penalty. The term fine is sometimes used to describe a penalty, but the terms fine and penalty should be kept separate because the consequences are different: nonpayment of a criminal fine can result in incarceration, whereas nonpayment of a civil penalty cannot.

Federal and state criminal statutes authorize fines for certain offenses. Depending on the crime, a fine may be imposed in addition to incarceration, restitution, community service, or Probation. The amount of a fine varies with the severity of the offense. State and federal criminal codes generally break down felonies and misdemeanors into classes or degrees. In Kentucky, for example, the fine for a violation or a class B misdemeanor may not exceed $250. For a class A misdemeanor, the fine may not exceed $500 (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 534.040). For a felony conviction, Kentucky courts are bound by statute to fine the defendant not less than $1,000, and not more than $10,000 or double the gain from the commission of the offense, whichever is greater (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §534.030). Two or more felonies committed through a single act may be fined separately in Kentucky, but the aggregate may not exceed $10,000 or double the amount of the illicit gain, whichever is greater.

In federal court, a felony is subject to a fine of not more than $250,000. A fine of $250,000 is also authorized for a misdemeanor resulting in death. Fines for class A misdemeanors not resulting in death may reach $100,000, and similar class B and C misdemeanors may result in a fine of up to $5,000 (18 U.S.C.A. § 3571). Federal law also allows a court to fine a defendant who has financially benefited from a crime, an amount twice that illicitly gained.

Federal and state laws authorize fines of similarly scaled amounts for organizations. The maximum fine for organizations is much higher than that for individuals. For instance, under 18U.S.C.A. § 3571, an organization guilty of a felony may be fined as much as $500,000. Kentucky also doubles the fine limit for organizations. For example, an organization in Kentucky that commits a felony may be fined $20,000, up from $10,000 for an individual (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 534.050).

States also authorize fines for specific crimes. In Kentucky, for example, a fine of not more than $2,500 and not less than $1,000 is required for the illegal sale of tobacco to a minor (§ 438.313). Statutes fix the maximum fine for a given offense, and statutes can be changed, so fine amounts can change.

In state courts, sentencing is usually left to the discretion of the judge. If a defendant is found by a court to be indigent, the court generally will not impose a fine (see, e.g., Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 534.030, 534.040). A determination of indigence generally involves an examination of several factors, including income, earning capacity, financial resources, the burden the fine may impose on persons dependent on the defendant, and the need to deprive the defendant of any illegally obtained gains. Where an indigent defendant is convicted of an offense that calls for incarceration, the court generally will not impose a fine in addition to the incarceration.

Federal courts must sometimes follow prison sentences mandated by federal statute, but the decision of whether to impose a fine in addition to any sentence is generally within the judge's discretion. Both state and federal courts may later reduce the amount of a fine. The statutory repayment period of a fine may be extended upon request of the court, and payments may be allowed in installments.

The U.S. Supreme Court has placed limits on incarceration for nonpayment of fines. In Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235, 90 S. Ct. 2018, 26 L. Ed. 2d 586 (1970), the defendant, Willie E. Williams, was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to one year in prison and a $500 fine, the maximum sentence allowed under the applicable statute. When Williams was unable to pay the fine upon completing his year in jail, he was kept incarcerated to "work off" the fine at a rate of $5 a day. Williams appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, no state may increase the sentence of a defendant beyond the maximum period specified by statute for failure to pay a fine.

Shortly after the Williams case, the Supreme Court ruled that a state may not convert a fine into incarceration if the conviction warrants only a fine. In Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 91 S. Ct. 668, 28 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1971), the defendant, Preston A. Tate, was unable to pay $425 in fines for traffic offenses and was committed to prison to work off his fine at a rate of $5 a day. The Supreme Court ruled that a state may not "impos[e] a fine as a sentence and then automatically conver[t] it into a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full."

Neither the Williams ruling nor the Tate ruling prevents a court from imprisoning a defendant who is able, but refuses, to pay a fine. The court may do so after finding that the defendant was somehow responsible for the failure to pay and that alternative forms of punishment would be inadequate to meet the state's interest in punishment and deterrence (Beardenv. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 103 S. Ct. 2064, 76 L. Ed. 2d 221 [1983]).

In a case of willful nonpayment, the court may order incarceration for a period of time specified under statute. In Kentucky, a prison term of up to six months may be ordered if the unpaid fine was imposed for the conviction of a felony. Nonpayment of a misdemeanor fine may result in a prison term of up to one-third the maximum authorized term for the offense committed. For a violation, the maximum term is ten days. This amount can be cumulative. For example, if a person refuses to pay the fines for ten violations, that person can be incarcerated for one hundred days (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 534.060).

Fines are often used to pay for incarceration and other sentencing costs. In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive crime control act (codified in scattered sections of 5, 8, 29, 41, 42, and 50 App. U.S.C.A.), which established the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Commission. According to section 5E1.2 of the act, a federal court shall impose a fine that is at least sufficient to pay the costs of imprisonment, probation, or supervised release order. Many states have followed suit, and fines are increasingly used to defray the costs of punishment.

Further readings

Committee on the Judiciary. 1999. Federal Courts: Differences Exist in Ordering Fines and Restitutions. Washington, D.C.: Government Accounting Office.

Furgeson, W. Royal Jr., Catharine M. Goodwin, and Stephanie Lynn Zucker. 2000. "The Perplexing Problem with Criminal Monetary Penalties in Federal Courts." Review of Litigation 19 (spring): 167–91.

Johnson, Jim. 2002. "Cruising for a Bruising; Cruise Line Admits Dumping Oil, Will Pay $1 Million Fine." Waste News (August 19).

Mangan, Lisa Suzanne. 1993. "Aborting the Indecency Standard in Political Programming." Communication Law Conspectus 1.

Tecce, James Charles. 1994. "Prisoners Paying for the Costs of Their Own Incarceration: United States Circuit Courts of Appeal Spar over the Validity and Application of United States Sentencing Guideline Section 5E1.2." Dickinson Law Review 99 (fall).