SJC Determines That State Pension Forfeiture Statute Is A Fine, Subject To The Eighth Amendment
The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that G.L. c. 32, § 15(4) is a fine and therefore subject to the restrictions of the Eighth Amendment of the United States’ Constitution. Section 15(4) provides for the forfeiture of a public employee’s pension and health insurance benefits if he/she is convicted of a crime relating to his/her position. The Court’s decision means that individuals convicted of minor crimes may not be subject to a complete forfeiture of their pension and retiree health insurance.
The case, Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission v. Bettencourt, involved, a lieutenant and twenty-five year veteran of the Peabody Police Department, who was convicted of twenty-one counts of unauthorized access of a computer system. Shortly after his conviction (which has since been appealed), the lieutenant applied for a superannuation retirement. However, as a result of the conviction, the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (“PERAC”) denied his application on the grounds that his retirement benefits and continuing health insurance were forfeited under G.L. c. 32, § 15(4). The issue before the Court was whether Section 15(4), as applied to this officer’s case, was an excessive fine under the Eight Amendment of the United States’ Constitution.
In determining that the forfeiture was an excessive fine, the Court held that Bettencourt had a property interest in his retirement benefits, that the forfeiture was a punishment (and hence, a fine), and that the fine as applied to him was disproportionate to the harm caused by the crimes for which he was convicted. As a result, the Court ruled that Section 15(4)’s forfeiture would not apply to Bettencourt’s pension and health insurance, allowing him to receive both in their entirety. Rather than determine what a non-excessive fine would be in this case, the Court deferred to the Legislature to determine how cases such as Bettencourt’s would be handled after forfeiture is deemed to be excessive.
This case is an important one, as the Court held for the first time that forfeiture under G.L. c. 32, § 15(4) is a fine subject to the restrictions of the Eighth Amendment. While the case did not strike down Section 15(4), unless and until the Legislature answers the Court’s call to create a remedy for individuals who have been excessively fined under Section 15(4), excessive forfeitures should result in an employee receiving the entirety of their retirement and health insurances benefits.
You can find the case details here.