Williams v. Illinois

LOCATION: Cook County Circuit Court, Criminal Division

DOCKET NO.: 1089
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 399 US 235 (1970)
ARGUED: Apr 22, 1970
DECIDED: Jun 29, 1970

James R. Thompson - For the Appellee
Stanley A. Bass - For the Appellant

Facts of the case

Willie E. Williams was convicted for theft of credit cards, checks, and papers worth less than $150. He received the maximum sentence for petty theft in Illinois: one year of imprisonment and a $500 fine. If Williams was unable to pay the fine (and an additional $5 in court costs) at the end of his sentence, he would remain in jail to “work off” the fine at a rate of $5 per day.

While in jail, Williams petitioned the trial court to vacate the “work off” provision of his sentence. Williams argued that he did not have any money or property with which to pay the money portion of his sentence, but he would pay if released after one year and allowed to get a job. The trial court held that Williams’ ability to pay might change by the end of his sentence and dismissed his petition. Williams appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Illinois and argued that the denial of his petition violated his right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court held that there was no Fourteenth Amendment violation.


Is the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment violated when an impoverished defendant is imprisoned to satisfy payment of a fine and court costs?

Media for Williams v. Illinois

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 22, 1970 in Williams v. Illinois

Warren E. Burger:

The nest case on for argument is Number 1089, Williams against Illinois.

Mr. Bass, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Stanley A. Bass:

Mr. Chief Justice, May it please the Court.

This is an appeal from the Illinois Supreme Court presenting the question whether Illinois statutes which authorize a pauper’s incarceration in excess of the maximum period prescribed by law, at the rate of $5.00 a day for payment of fine and Court costs.

Despite the fact that the defendant is willing and able to pay them, if given the opportunity, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The facts which are undisputed are briefly as follows: the complaint was issued in June of 1967 against Willie Williams for the crime of theft of property not from the person, and not exceeding $150.00 in value.

A warrant was issued and a $2000.00 bail was set.

Williams was arrested on August 13.

The case was brought before the Court the following day on August 14 at which at the time bail was set at $2000.00.

Williams was remanded to jail on motion of the state, the case was continued to August 16.

On August 16, the case was again continued on motion of the state to September 6.

On September 6, the trial commenced.

The defendant appeared in the Court said, there was no Court reporter present.

The record shows that the defendant waived his right to a jury trial.

The case was tried before the judge without a jury.

Finding of guilty was made and the maximum of sentence of one year plus a $500.00 fine was imposed.

The $5.00 cost was also made part of the judgment.

And the judgment further ordered that the defendant stand committed in jail, if he would default from the payment of the fine and cost.

Sometime afterward the defendant contacted the civil legal aid service in the jail and a petition was presented to the sentencing judge, November of 1967, which prayed that the portion of the sentencing order of September 6, which directed that the defendants stand committed in default of payment of the fine and cost be vacated.

That further prayed that the defendant be granted sufficient time and wish to obtain the funds and wish to pay the fine and cost and further asked for such other relief as maybe just inappropriate.

The petition was made under oath and contained some of the following allegations, that defendant was indigent, inmate of the county jail.

He had no funds, no valuable property.

He had been unable to post bail.

He lacked $200.00, wished to post the 10% under the Illinois law.

He was unable to hire an attorney and that he was then unable to pay the fine and cost.

He further recited that he had been in jail since August 13 and had been unable to earn funds since that time.

And it further alleged that if the defendant were released from jail upon the expiration of the one-year jail sentence that he would be able to get a job and earn the funds to pay the fine and costs.

The state did not contravene the factual allegation but moved to dismiss.

The lower court dismissed the petition without evidentiary hearing and an appeal was taken to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court held that there is no denial of Equal Protection of the law, when an indigent defendant is imprisoned to satisfy payment of his fine.