The reviewing court's review of the trial court's ruling on a constitutional question is independent judgment, or de novo, but with deference to underlying factual findings, which the reviewing court reviews for substantial evidence, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the ruling.
Plaintiff sued defendants, the owners of multi-unit rental property, for nuisance abatement and other relief, including civil penalties for violations of the municipal housing code and the municipal building code. Bifurcated trial produced an injunction and interlocutory judgment of liability including civil penalty of $ 767,000 (based on a calculation of 767 days of violations at $ 1,000 per day) under the housing code. On appeal, defendants particularly challenged the housing code penalty, claiming it was miscalculated and violated due process and excessive-fines protections of the state and federal constitutions. Judgment was affirmed as modified to reflect housing code violation for 663 days.
Does the appellate court have the authority to decide whether the penalty violated due process?
The court modified the penalties to correct a miscalculation, but rejected defendants' constitutional claims, and affirmed judgment in all other respects. The correct number of days of housing code violations should have been 663 days, resulting in penalty of $663,000. Defendants ignored or disobeyed orders to abate or rectify substandard housing conditions affecting public health and safety, justifying penalties imposed. The court held that the penalty did not violate the owners' due process rights. Although the code did not grant trial courts discretion to fashion smaller penalties, and did allow a potentially unlimited amount of penalty, the due process issue turns on whether a penalty provision is constitutional as applied. In this case, the factors did not clearly reveal any unconstitutionality. These factors included the lack of provocation by tenants or local authorities, the legitimate purposes advanced by the code, the intransigence of the landlords, the landlords' overall financial worth, and the proportionality of the penalty when compared against similar laws.