What does a criminal fine mean and who paid the largest criminal fine in US history?

Also known as “mulct,” a fine is a monetary penalty that a court imposes as punishment for committing a crime. In the US, Pfizer paid the largest criminal and civil fine in pharmaceutical industry. The company paid a total of $2.3 billion in fines.

Quick take: what does a criminal fine mean?

  • Willful failure to pay a fine may result in incarceration, asset seizure, or other suitable penalties.
  • Pfizer paid the largest criminal fine in the US -after pleading guilty to a felony violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act.
  • Before a court imposes a fine, there must be Ability-to-Pay hearings in some states.
  • The fines for repeat offenses are typically higher than the first offense.
  • Court fines aim to punish the accused and discourage the crime.
  • Felonies including murder and drug-related crimes carry the highest penalties in the US.
  • Petty offenses, infractions, and some misdemeanors are punishable by fines alone.
  • The court may order a fine and a prison sentence.
  • Under federal law, the court must consider the accused’s resources and ability to pay before imposing a fine.
  • A court may order the accused to pay both civil and criminal fines.


BP, TEPCO, Facebook, and VW paid the largest criminal and civil fines in recent history. Find out why here. link

What are fines and penalties?

As mentioned, a fine is a money payment a court demands from an individual who has committed a crime. The penalty could be a response to civil or criminal violations, and the judge or state statute determines the amount.

For example, if you are in Florida and a court finds you guilty of a non-capital offense, under section 775.083 “fines,” the punishment is a maximum fine of $500 for misdemeanor in the second degree or non-criminal violations. The penalty increases to $1000 if the court convicts you of a misdemeanor of the first degree.

What that means is when imposing a fine in the US, the court must consider several factors, including:

  • The level of fine available for the offense under state law.
  • The state’s sentencing guidelines and the seriousness of the offense.
  • The defendant’s means and ability to pay.

Who paid the largest criminal fine in history?

In 2009, Pfizer, a pharmaceutical giant, paid a total of $2.3 billion in fines. Why?

According to the US Department of Justice, Pfizer participated in fraudulent activities. Pharmacia and Upjohn company/Pfizer pled guilty to a felony violation of the US Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act.

What crime did Pfizer commit?

The company promoted off-label use of Bextra, an anti-inflammatory, with the intent to defraud or mislead the public.

The work of the FDA’S regulatory program is to enforce activities including actions to punish offenders, remove products that violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act, and correct or prevent violations.

Under the act, misdemeanor violations that do not result in death are punishable by a fine of up to $250000. If the violation results in death, or a felony, the court may impose up to $500000 in fines.

 Bextra -before the FDA took it off the market-was an arthritis drug that had serious side effects, including death, diarrhea, headache, indigestion, stomach cramps, upper respiratory tract infections, rash, muscle pain, gas, dizziness, and posed the risk of heart, skin, and stomach complications.

The company also illegally promoted the use of an anti-epileptic drug and an antipsychotic.

The violation was the manufacturer failed to warn users of the potential side effects, instead, they only warning was about not using the drug while pregnant.

Pfizer had to pay both criminal and civil fines

The side effects of using Bextra outweighed its benefits. Consequently, some users suffered life-changing side effects, and some died (4 deaths).

Because of that, the court imposed both criminal and civil damages on Pfizer. Pfizer had to pay $1 billion in civil damages plus penalties to federal health care programs for the offense of false advertising. To date, there are thousands of lawsuits against Pfizer in the US court system.

In short:

  • There were 12.2 billion Bextra prescriptions before the FDA prohibited use.
  • Pfizer carried out an aggressive unlawful campaign to promote “off label” uses of Bextra.
  • Users filed a class action lawsuit resulting in civil fines.
  • Bextra’s insert only warned users against taking the drug when pregnant.
  • Pfizer knew that Bextra caused serious side effects.
  • Pfizer failed to report the side effects to users.
Pfizer paid $1.195 in criminal fines.

For false advertisement, a violation of the US Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Pfizer paid $1.195 billion.

What is the difference between fines and damages?

The difference between a fine and damages is the latter are civil sanctions and the former a criminal sanction. That means if you violate criminal law, one of the options the court has is to impose a fine. On the other hand, if someone suffers because of your actions, say you commit a hit and run resulting in injuries, you may have to pay damages to the victim.

Damages could be compensatory or punitive. For example, if your negligent actions cause injury to someone, the court may impose punitive damages upon conviction.

Why do people receive criminal fines?

A criminal fine serves to punish the offender and deter the offense. Consequently, in most states, the fines and penalties for repeat offenses are higher than first-time offenders. For some misdemeanor or petty offenses such as jaywalking, the court or arresting officer -depending on state law- may impose a fine only.

 Why are petty offenses punishable by fines and no jail time?

Infractions or petty offenses are statutory violations that do not warrant jail time. In the US, you do not have a right to a jury trial when accused of a petty offense.

On top of that, the court does not have the obligation to appoint an attorney for you. However, you may hire one if you choose to.

Is it a criminal offense not to pay a fine?

Yes. Depending on state law, if you do not pay a fine, the court may increase your penalties, or you may go to jail.

 During sentencing, the court may order you to serve time or pay a fine. If you cannot or choose to not pay a fine, you will serve time. It is also possible for the court to order time and a fine.

What if you are unable to pay a fine?

Depending on state law, you may request the court to order alternative sanctions; your options include:

  • Request an extension
  • Reduction of fines
  • Community service

It is also worth noting that 18 US code 3572 section (e), reads:

“At the time a defendant is sentenced to pay a fine, the court may not impose an alternative sentence to be carried out if the fine is not paid.”

Also, section (d) reads, quote:

“DELINQUENCY. —A fine or payment of restitution is delinquent if a payment is more than 30 days late.”

Note. Willful failure to pay a fine is a crime that may result in additional fines or prison time.


If you are unable to pay court-ordered fines, you should contact a fines officer at the court and request a reduction. Legal experts recommend that you do this before you miss a payment. If you do not do that, or if you miss payments, the consequences include:

  • The court may send you to prison.
  • The court may order your employer to garnish a percentage of your wages, salary, or benefits.
  • If you are receiving benefits, the state may take a percentage.
  • In some states, enforcement agents may auction your belongings.
  • You may receive community service or other suitable penalties.
  • Report the debt to a credit bureau.

What factors must the court consider when imposing a fine?

Under 18 US code 3572 “imposition of a sentence of fine and related matters,” the court must consider the following when imposing a fine

  • Your income, earning capacity, and financial resources
  • The need to deprive the accused of illegally acquired gains or benefits.
  • The financial burden the fine will impose on the accused.
  • If the accused can pass the cost on to consumers or other persons.
  • The financial loss inflicted on the victim.
  • The size of the organization.
  • The amount of restitution.

Note, section B of the statute reads, quote:

“If, as a result of a conviction, the defendant has the obligation to make restitution to a victim of the offense, other than the United States, the court shall impose a fine or other monetary penalties only to the extent that such fine or penalty will not impair the ability of the defendant to make restitution”

The rules are different when the accused is an organization such as Pfizer.

“If the defendant is an organization, the size of the organization and any measure taken by the organization to discipline any officer, director, employee, or agent of the organization responsible for the offense and to prevent a recurrence of such an offense.”

Note. The ability to pay determinations does not apply to all cases.

Fines in the US Guidelines: what to remember

  • You may appeal a fine, request reduction, or alternative punishment depending on the crime and state law.
  • A court may waive or reduce your fines.
  • Failure to pay a fine may result in prison.
  • Before a court imposes a fine, there must be an “Ability-to -Pay” hearing.
  • Unpaid fines may stop you from traveling to another country.

What crimes carry the highest fines in the US?

Felonies, including possession of narcotics with intent, carry a maximum fine of up to $250000 in some states. Other crimes, including murder and violent felonies, are punishable by a maximum fine of $50000, depending on state law.

Remember. The facts presented and state statute determines the maximum fine one may pay.

How do I appeal a fine?

If you think that a court ruling is wrong or unfair, you have the option to file an appeal.

Note that the appeal decision is the final word in most cases, meaning you cannot appeal an appeal in the same court. The only option you have is to file an appeal at a higher court.

We recommend consulting with an attorney immediately.

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