$5,000 Civil Penalty for Soliciting Prostitute in Florida is Constitutional Under 8th Amendment

The Second District Court of Appeal held in State of Florida v. Joseph Lloyd Cotton that a $5,000 civil penalty for soliciting a prostitute (at the time, a second-degree misdemeanor) was constitutional after the trial court had found it unconstitutional.  The appellate court acknowledged, in a rare discussion of the Eighth Amendment, that this case “approaches the outer limits of constitutionality.”  As discussed below, as of 2015, the Legislature has already “fixed” the problem.

The opinion provides little factual information other than that the defendant pled no contest and that it was his first violation.  It appears, from the name and dates, that the arrest may have occurred in Bradenton, Florida during a September 2013 string (see here and here).

The question is whether a $5,000 fine for a second degree misdemeanor is an Excessive Fine under the Eighth Amendment (“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted.”).  Under the 2013 version of Florida Statute 796.07(2)(f), no matter whether the defendant committed a range of felonies and misdemeanors, the $5,000 penalty was the same.  Previously, the fine was $500.  Cotton claims this was excessive for his first time offense / second-degree misdemeanor.  Again, below we’ll explain that the Legislature has already “fixed” the problem.

Florida originally disputed that the “civil penalty” was a fine but the State’s counsel apparently conceded for the first time during oral argument of the appeal.

The Second District applied the rarely-used Excessive Fines Clause analysis as well as Florida Statute 775.083(1), which provides a point of reference for criminal fines.  $500 appears to be the going rate for second-degree misdemeanors however the court noted that some crimes at that level — e.g., flying without a license, polluting, and illegally running a lab) — have the same $5k fine.

The Court gave (the required) deference to the Legislature and concluded that there is a “link between prostitution and trafficking” and that these types of crimes adversely impact the “health, safety, welfare, and morals of the affected neighborhood…”  In short, the court held the degree of the crime was not dispositive and the fine was not an unreasonable requirement.

So how did Florida “fix” the issue of the imbalance of a $5k fine being imposed on a 2nd degree misdemeanor… as of 2015, it’s now a first degree misdemeanor.

Some additional commentary, here.

Photo credit: Second District