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Fines for Consent Decree Non-Compliance are Criminal, Require Jury Trial

The district court fined D.C. $5.1 million for noncompliance with a consent decree governing treatment of the mentally retarded, which requires placement in community institutions and payment of vendors within 30 days following submission of acceptable vouchers. The nonpayment resulted from a fiscal crisis.

Under Bagwell, the fines were criminal in nature, entitling D.C. to a jury trial. The fact that the schedule of prospective fines was announced in advance and the fines would accrue as each deadline was missed did not make the fines civil. The fines were imposed instantly, in a fixed amount, upon missing the deadline; that means the defendants did not have the ability to avoid the fine or reduce its amount through future compliance after a fine was imposed.

The court also notes that for Bagwell purposes the fines were "serious"; though each component fine might not be, the total of $5.1 million was. Anyway, in Bagwell the fact that the injunction established a "detailed code of conduct" appears to have been central; this case, too, involves detailed prescriptions of conduct. The court brushes off the suggestion that deeming these sanctions criminal will cause difficulties in managing institutional reform litigation. As in Bagwell, the scope of the decision is completely unclear; if the structure of the fines made them criminal, it is unclear why it is necessary to discuss their seriousness or the nature of the injunction, unless all these factors must be present to render a sanction criminal.

The district court should have modified the judgment to reflect the changed circumstances of the District's ability to comply (i.e., its fiscal crisis). The foreseeability of that crisis should be viewed from the perspective of the original 1983 consent decree and not the 1996 remedial plan, which was designed to enforce the original decree but did not comprehensively reexamine its obligations. See: Evans v. Williams, 206 F.3d 292 (D.C.Cir. 2000).

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Related legal case

Evans v. Williams