Ebosele Oboh was renovating his house in the Brightwood neighborhood without having obtained the necessary permits. The D.C. Department of Buildings posted a stop work order and also issued him a Notice of Infraction (NOI), proposing a fine of $8,856 for the violations. When Mr. Oboh didn’t respond to the NOI within two weeks, the Department imposed a statutory penalty equal to twice the amount of the fine, or $17,712 (for a total of $26,568). Mr. Oboh, representing himself, appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In February 2023 we filed an amicus brief, together with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, arguing that the penalty of $17,712 violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “excessive fines.” Our brief reasons that little if any harm is caused by a failure to respond to an NOI by the deadline, and certainly nothing approaching $17,712 worth of harm. Indeed, it makes no sense at all to calculate the penalty for a late response based on the size of the underlying proposed fine—a late response to a proposed fine of $50,000 (which would result in a $100,000 late-filing penalty) is not a thousand times worse than a late response to a proposed fine of $500 (which would result in a $1,000 late-filing penalty). And even a $1,000 late-filing penalty would be unjustifiable and therefore excessive.
The Eighth Amendment is best known for prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments, but the prohibition on excessive fines is also an important protection against an overbearing government, as the Founders understood. We are glad to have an opportunity to help enforce it.
UPDATE: Shortly after we filed our brief, the case was settled, so there will be no decision. We will look for another opportunity to make the same arguments, as the statute creating this penalty remains on the books.