Tate v. Short (1971)

It is a denial of equal protection to limit punishment to payment of a fine for those who are able to pay it, but to convert the fine to imprisonment for those who are unable to pay it.

Citation: 401 U.S. 395 (1971)
Date decided: Mar 2, 1971
Longer case name: Preston A. TATE v. Herman SHORT.
Law type: Criminal
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Texas
Topic(s):Criminal fines and Equal protection
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Norman Dorsen (American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU) argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Peter Sanchez-Navarro, Jr., and Stanley A. Bass.
Others involved:Allan Ashman filed a brief for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association as amicus curiae urging reversal.
More info:

Case Importance

John D. Lowery,Criminal Procedure — Equal Protection — The Dual Impact of Tate v. Short on Default Imprisonment and Monetary Bail, 50N.C. L. Rev.136 (1971).Available at:http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/nclr/vol50/iss1/13: “Would the average American believe that an estimated seventy-five percent of the persons in jail are there because of inability to pay fines? [This inequality] was mitigated when default imprisonment, the practice of imprisoning indigents because of their inability to pay fines, was recently declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Tate v. Short….The Court held that default imprisonment violates the equal protection clause not only because it discriminates on the basis of wealth but also because constitutional alternatives are available to accomplish the state’s purpose of securing payment of fines. After Tate a state is forced either to eliminate fines in their entirety or to adopt one or a combination of those alternatives. The most equitable and useful alternative is to permit indigents to pay their fines in installments over a reasonable period of time…. The inherent problem with all proposed alternatives is their enforcement. In Tate, the Court emphasized that it was not ruling on whether imprisonment could be used to enforce the alternatives adopted by the state when the alternatives are unsuccessful despite the defendant’s reasonable attempt at compliance. Imprisonment to penalize contumacious failure to pay fines is unaffected by the Tate decision.” “Indigent Defendant-Statutory Fines: Tate v. Short”, 401 U.S. 395 (1971), 62 J. Crim. L. Criminology & Police Sci. 493 (1971): “The alternative most often suggested is the ‘deferred payment’ scheme under which theindigent offender is given the chance to satisfy his fine in installments…. While such laws are a step in the right direction, they provide no viable alternative to those indigents who cannot afford to pay a fine at any time, whether at the time the fine is imposed or six months or a year later…. There are other as yet unchampioned alternatives, but each presents greater difficulties than do those examined above.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



Petitioner, an indigent, was convicted of traffic offenses and fined a total of $425. Though Texas law provides only for fines for such offenses, it requires that persons unable to pay must be incarcerated for sufficient time to satisfy their fines, at the rate of $5 per day, which in petitioner’s case meant an 85-day term. The state courts denied his petition for habeas corpus. Held: It is a denial of equal protection to limit punishment to payment of a fine for those who are able to pay it but to convert the fine to imprisonment for those who are unable to pay it. Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S. 235 . Pp. 397-401.

445 S. W. 2d 210, reversed and remanded.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:59
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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