399 U.S. 235 (1970), Williams v. Illinois

Citation:399 U.S. 235, 90 S.Ct. 2018, 26 L.Ed.2d 586
Party Name:Williams v. Illinois
Case Date:June 29, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 235

399 U.S. 235 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 2018, 26 L.Ed.2d 586




United States Supreme Court

June 29, 1970



Appellant was given the maximum sentence for petty theft under Illinois law of one year' imprisonment and a $500 fine, plus $5 in court costs. The judgment, as permitted by statute, provided that, if, when the one-year sentence expired, he did not pay the monetary obligation, he had to remain in jail to work them off at the rate of $5 a day. While in jail, appellant, alleging indigency, unsuccessfully petitioned the sentencing judge to vacate that portion of the order confining him to jail after the sentence expired, because of nonpayment of the fine and cost. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected appellant's claim that the State statutory provision constituted discriminatory treatment against those unable to pay a fine and court costs, and affirmed the lower court's dismissal of appellant's petition, holding that "there is no denial of equal protection of the law when an indigent defendant is imprisoned to satisfy payment of the fine."

Held: Though a State has considerable latitude in fixing the punishment for state crime, and may impose alternative sanction, it may not, under the Equal Protection Clause, subject a certain class of convicted defendants to a period of Imprisonment beyond the statutory maximum solely by reason of their indigency. Pp. 239-245.

41 Ill.2d 511, 244 N.E.2d 197, vacated and remanded.

Page 236

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal from Illinois presents an important question involving a claim of discriminatory treatment based upon financial inability to pay a fine and court costs imposed in a criminal case. The narrow issue raised is whether an indigent may be continued in confinement beyond the maximum term specified by statute because of his failure to satisfy the monetary provisions of the sentence. We noted probable jurisdiction1 and set the case for oral argument with No. 782, Morris v. Schoonfield, post, p. 508, also decided today.

On August 16, 1967, appellant was convicted of petty theft, and received the maximum sentence provided by state law: one year imprisonment and a $500 fine.2 Appellant was also taxed $5 in court costs. The judgment directed, as permitted by statute, that, if appellant was in default of the payment of the fine and court costs at the expiration of [90 S.Ct. 2020] the one-year sentence, he should remain in jail pursuant to § 1-7(k) of the Illinois Criminal Code to "work off" the monetary obligations at the rate of $5 per day.3 Thus, whereas the maximum term of imprisonment for petty theft was one year, the effect of the sentence imposed here required appellant to be

Page 237

confined for 101 days beyond the maximum period of confinement fixed by the statute, since he could not pay the fine and costs of $505.

On November 29, 1967, appellant, while still an inmate in the county jail, petitioned the sentencing judge4 to vacate that portion of the order requiring that he remain imprisoned upon expiration of his one-year sentence because of nonpayment of the fine and court costs. Appellant alleged that he was indigent at all stages of the proceeding, was without funds or property to satisfy the money portion of the sentence, and that he would "be able to get a job and earn funds to pay the fine and costs if . . . released from jail upon expiration of his one-year sentence." The State did not dispute the factual allegations,5 and the trial court granted the State's motion to dismiss the petition

for the reason that [appellant] was not legally entitled at that time to the relief requested . . . , because he still has time to serve on his jail sentence, and, when that sentence has been served, his financial ability to pay a fine might not be the same as it is of the date [of sentencing].

Page 238

Appeal was taken directly to the Supreme Court of Illinois, which appears to have rejected any suggestion by the trial court that the petition was premature, and went on to decide appellant's constitutional claim on the merits. It held that "there is no denial of equal protection of the law when an indigent defendant is imprisoned to satisfy payment of the fine." People v. Williams, 41 Ill.2d 511, 517, 244 N.E.2d 197, 200 (1969).6

In addition to renewing the constitutional argument rejected by the state courts, appellant advances a host of other claims7 which, in light of our disposition, we find unnecessary to reach or decide. Appellant challenges the constitutionality [90 S.Ct. 2021] of § 1-7(k) of the Illinois Criminal Code, and argues primarily that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits imprisonment of an indigent beyond the maximum term authorized by the statute governing the substantive offense when that imprisonment flows directly from his present inability to pay a fine and court costs. In response, the State asserts its interest in the collection of revenues produced by payment of fines, and contends that a "work-off" system, as provided by § 1-7(k), is a rational means of implementing that policy. That interest is substantial and legitimate, but, for present purposes, it is not unlike the State's interest in collecting a fine from an indigent person in circumstances where no imprisonment is included in the judgment. The State argues further that the statute is not constitutionally infirm simply because the legislature could have achieved the same result

Page 239

by some other means. With that general proposition, we have no quarrel, but that generality does not resolve the issue.

As noted earlier, appellant's incarceration beyond the statutory maximum stems from separate, albeit related, reasons: nonpayment of a fine and nonpayment of court costs. We find that neither of those grounds can constitutionally support the type of imprisonment imposed here, but we treat the fine and costs together, because disposition of the claim on fines governs our disposition on costs.8

The custom of imprisoning a convicted defendant for nonpayment of fines date back to medieval England,9 and has long been practiced in this country. At the present time, almost all States and the Federal Government have statutes authorizing incarceration under such circumstances. Most States permit imprisonment beyond the maximum term allowed by law, and, in some, there is no limit on the length of time one may serve for nonpayment.10 While neither the antiquity of a practice nor the fact of steadfast legislative and judicial adherence to it through the centuries insulates it from constitutional attack, these factors should be weighed in

Page 240

he balance.11 Indeed, in prior cases, this Court seems to have tacitly approved incarceration to "work-off" unpaid fines. See Hill v. Wampler, 298 U.S. 460 (1936); Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1878).12

The need to be open to reassessment of ancient practices other than those explicitly mandated by the Constitution is illustrated by the present case, since the greatly increased use of fines as a criminal sanction has made nonpayment [90 S.Ct. 2022] a major cause of incarceration in this country.13 Default imprisonment has traditionally been justified on the ground that it is a coercive device to ensure obedience to the judgment of the court.14 Thus, commitment for failure to pay has not been viewed as a part of the punishment or as an increase in the penalty; rather, it has been viewed as a means of enabling the court to enforce collection of money that a convicted defendant was obligated by the sentence to pay. The additional imprisonment, it has been said, may always be avoided by payment of the fine.15

We conclude that, when the aggregate imprisonment exceeds the maximum period fixed by the statute, and

Page 241

results directly from an involuntary nonpayment of a fine or court costs we are confronted with an impermissible discrimination that rests on ability to pay, and, accordingly, we vacate the judgment below.

Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956), marked a significant effort to alleviate discrimination against those who are unable to meet the costs of litigation in the administration of criminal justice. In holding that the failure to provide an indigent criminal defendant with a trial transcript at public expense in order to prosecute an appeal was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, this Court declared the "[t]here can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has." Id. at 19. In the years since the Griffin case, the Court has had frequent occasion to reaffirm allegiance to the basic command that justice be applied equally to all persons.16 Subsequent decisions of this Court have pointedly demonstrated that the passage of time has heightened, rather than weakened, the attempts to mitigate the disparate treatment of indigents in the criminal process.17 Applying the teaching of the Griffin case here, we conclude that an indigent criminal defendant may not be imprisoned in default of payment of a fine beyond the maximum authorized by the statute regulating the substantive offense.

A State has wide latitude in fixing the punishment for state crimes. Thus, appellant doe not assert that Illinois could not have appropriately fixed the penalty, in the first instance, at one year and 101 days. Nor has the claim been advanced that the sentence imposed was excessive in light of the circumstances of the commission of this particular offense. However, once the State has

Page 242

defined the outer limits of incarceration necessary to satisfy its penological interests and policies, it may not then subject a certain class of convicted defendants to a period of imprisonment beyond the statutory maximum solely by reason of their indigency.

It is clear, of course, that...

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