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What is a Fine?

Updated on January 16, 2010

A fine, in criminal law, a penalty exacted for commission of an offense, requiring the offender to make a payment of money to the state. Often the judge can sentence the offender to pay a fine or go to jail, and usually he can sentence him to do both. For very minor offenses, either by law or practice, the only penalty is a fine, as for most traffic offenses and violations of city ordinances, such as those dealing with the safety of buildings and sanitation.

Criminal and Civil Cases

A fine in a criminal case is similar to the payment of money required in a civil case to compensate for an injury or for business or property losses caused by the wrongful conduct of another. The principal differences are (1) that the fine in a criminal case is not limited to the amount of proven damages; (2) that it is always paid to the state, regardless of who is the injured party; and (3) that a fine may be imposed where misbehavior is both a criminal offense and the basis for a civil suit, even though the defendant has already made restitution for the loss or compensated the complainant for his injury. A fine and a civil award, however, may sometimes be indistinguishable, as when the state is the injured party and is authorized to obtain a civil penalty in addition to recovering its losses in a civil lawsuit. For example, in addition to the taxes owed in a tax fraud case, the tax delinquent may be assessed an amount equal to 50% of the taxes. The difference is also very slight when a private complainant is awarded punitive damages, as in libel, slander, and antitrust cases. In criminal cases, the defendant's wrong has always been the violation of a criminal law, and in the determination of his criminal liability he is afforded greater protections and rights.

A practice has developed (primarily when a judicial officer is not immediately available) of requiring out-of-state motorists to post bail equal to the maximum fine for alleged traffic infractions. If the motorist is willing to pay the fine, he can fail to appear forfeit his bail, and the case will be considered closed.

Fines are often an important source of revenue in some small communities, and the practice in certain localities of paying officials' salaries from fines raises the question of whether justice is impartially administered. In some large cities, traffic and parking fines are sufficient to pay the costs of administering traffic courts.

Modern Trends

Most American criminal laws state that the sentencing judge may set the fine at any amount up to a maximum sum arbitrarily chosen by the legislature to "fit the crime." A newer approach is to allow the judge to set a fine up to twice the value of the criminal's gain from his crime. Still another trend is to recognize that, for certain, offenses (including serious ones involving violence, such as forcible rape) a fine is not at all an appropriate penalty.

Other modern developments as to fines stem from efforts to equalize matters between the poor and the rich. Imposing the choice of fine or jail (that is, "$30 or 30 days") has been condemned as improper because it discriminates against the poor. Western Europe has introduced the Scandinavian concept of instituting a "day fine," under which the maximum fine is set in terms of days and the amount of the fine depends on the offender's income per day.


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