Stack v. Boyle: What is Excessive Bail?

magistrateThe Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America has two primary provisions. First, the Eighth Amendment protects someone convicted of a crime from cruel and unusual punishment. Secondly, it guarantees that a defendant is protected against excessive bail. What is excessive bail? This is a question the Supreme Court has was asked to answer in the case Stack v. Boyle (1951).

Stack v. Boyle and Reasonable Bail

During the middle 20th century, the United States was engaged in an anti-communist fervor that resulted in the passage of the Alien Registration Act of 1940, sometimes referred to as the Smith Act. The Act made it illegal for anyone to conspire against or attempt to overthrow the United States government.

In 1951, 12 members of the communist party were arrested for violating the Smith Act. Bail for each defendant was set at $50,000. The defendants petitioned the government to lower their bail based on their financial circumstances, criminal records and other information of each defendant. However, the government only submitted information regarding four of the 12 defendants. This raised the question: Can a court constitutionally set bail for a group of defendants that is higher than a normal bail amount?

The Court found that the government must set bail individually, and that bail must be set at an amount that is “reasonably likely to ensure the presence of the defendant at the trial.” The Stack decision established the precedent that courts must set bail no higher than is necessary to make sure a defendant shows up for their trial. In this case, the Court held that the bail for the defendants was set unnessicarily high – infringing on their constitutional freedom from excessive bail.

This decision gave courts power to levy higher bail amounts in instances where the defendant is considered a flight risk.