SC Attorney General: Excessive beach parking fines could be unconstitutional

Lowcountry Beaches

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD) – In a recent letter, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson opined that parking fines levied by beach municipalities could be unconstitutional if they are disproportionately high.

Wilson’s analysis came in response to a letter from South Carolina Senator Larry Grooms questioning whether Isle of Palms and Folly Beach are violating law by imposing what Grooms believes are excessive fines.

Grooms claimed that “the average of fines for the six municipalities of Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Myrtle Beach, and Pawleys Island is $29.31. Using $29.31 as the basis for a standard fine, the minimum fine on Folly Beach of $60 is 204% of the standard fine and the ‘any other fine’ amount of $100 for parking on Isle of Palms is 341 % of the standard fine.”

Wilson cited the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” He cited Section 15 Article I of the South Carolina Constitution as well, which also protects against “excessive fines.”

To determine whether a fine is excessive, The United States Supreme Court typically refers to a precedent set in United States v. Bajakaian, which examines “if the penalty is ‘grossly disproportional’ to the gravity” of the offense.

Those factors include: “(a) “the essence of the crime” of the respondent and its relation to other criminal activity, (b) whether the respondent fit into the class of persons for whom the statute was principally designed, (c) the maximum sentence and fine that could have been imposed, and ( d) the nature of the harm caused by the respondent’s conduct.”

Should a case be brought, Wilson predicted “South Carolina courts would apply the Eighth Amendment excessive fines clause as well as [Sec. 15 Article I of the South Carolina Constitution] to fines for municipal parking violations.” Wilson also said it was likely the court would “apply the factors in Bajakajian to determine” whether the fines are excessive.

However, Wilson declined to opine on whether fines being levied by municipalities like Isle of Palms and Folly Beach qualify as excessive. That determination, Wilson said, “requires factual determinations, which are beyond the scope of an opinion of [his] Office,” and “therefore, the constitutionality of these fines would need to be determined by a court.”

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