In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant entered a no contest plea to solicitation of prostitution. The crime of solicitation of prostitution occurs when a person offers to engage another person in sexual activity for hire. It is considered a minor second degree misdemeanor crime in Florida. In this case, the judge sentenced the defendant to probation and community service but also added a $5,000 fine. In most misdemeanor cases, including more serious misdemeanors, there is either no fine or a much smaller fine (court costs are another matter). For second degree misdemeanors, $500 is normally considered the highest end for fines, and many cases result in no fines. However, the prostitution statute specifically mandates a $5,000 fine for defendants who are convicted of, or enter guilty or no contest pleas to, the charge of solicitation of prostitution. So, while it is definitely unusual for a judge to impose such a large fine for a crime that is considered relatively minor, this fine is actually in the statute.
Because of the unusual nature of the fine, the criminal defense lawyer appealed the sentence to a circuit court judge claiming that it violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment provides that a judge shall not impose a sentence that is cruel and unusual and specifically prohibits imposing excessive fines. Eighth Amendment challenges to criminal sentences rarely work. If a sentence is legal under the Florida laws, or federal laws in federal cases, chances are an appellate court is not going to rule that the sentence is excessive or cruel and unusual.
However, this case was an exception. A fine used as a punishment is considered excessive if it is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime. In other words, judges are not permitted to impose very high fines for minor criminal conduct. In this case, the appellate judge ruled that the $5,000 fine was excessive and unconstitutional, even though it was specifically mandated in the statute. Since finding a statutory provision unconstitutional is a fairly drastic and uncommon event, it is certainly possible that a higher appellate court will take up this issue.
In the meantime, if you have been charged with solicitation of prostitution in Jacksonville or other parts of Florida the judge will likely impose a $5,000 fine unless the charge is dropped or amended or you beat the case at trial. However, while this new opinion is out there, the prosecutor and the judge should be informed that this fine has been ruled unconstitutional by another judge in Florida.