Pension Forfeiture and the Eighth Amendment (Part 1)

by | Jun 13, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On March 30, 2020, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Mercer County case of State v. Bennie Anderson. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2 was whether the forfeiture of the defendant’s pension for accepting a $300 bribe violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines.

Judge Natali, Jr. held in relevant part: In light of our decision that the forfeiture of pension benefits is a punitive fine that implicates the Excessive Fines Clause, we next address defendant’s second point. Defendant argues that the forfeiture of $47,918.76 per year in pension income for the duration of his life because he accepted a $300 bribe is an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment and warrants reversal. We disagree.

As discussed, in determining whether a fine violates the Excessive Fines Clause, courts must “compare the forfeiture amount to that offense, and ‘if the amount of the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant’s offense, it is unconstitutional.'” Bettencourt, 47 N.E.3d at 678 (citing Bajakajian, 524 U.S. at 337). The Bajakajian Court initially emphasized that “judgments about the appropriate punishment for an offense belong in the first instance to the legislature.” Id. at 336. The Court then considered four factors in weighing the gravity of a defendant’s underlying offense: 1) the nature and extent of the crime; 2) whether the violation was related to other illegal activities; 3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation; and 4) the extent of the harm caused. See id. at 337-40.

Applying that analysis here, we first note that while mandatory forfeiture of defendant’s pension benefits may seem like a harsh penalty given his receipt of a mere $300 bribe, the Legislature deemed such a result to be an appropriate consequence for that precise official misconduct. It was well within the Legislature’s power to set this penalty as it saw fit. Policy decisions rest with the Legislature and a statute’s constitutionality “does not turn upon whether a plan is wise or unwise in a judge’s view.”

On the one hand, the defendant must be sick that his taking $300 will likely end up costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension funds. On the other hand, this particular bribe may have been just one of many that he has received during the course of his employment.