U.S. Supreme Court: States can’t impose excessive fines

February 21, 2019 GMT

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision affirming that the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to state and local agencies will change the way many states practice civil asset forfeiture, according to those familiar with the ruling.

The high court unanimously ruled that the Indiana Supreme Court erred when it held that the excessive fines clause of the Constitution did not apply in a case involving Indiana resident Tyson Timbs. Timbs’ $40,000 Land Rover was taken from him after a conviction of selling 4 grams of heroin to support his previous drug addiction.

Timbs purchased the vehicle with proceeds from a life insurance policy after his father died, but Indiana officials argued that the vehicle was subject to seizure because it was used during the commission of a crime. Timbs subsequently pleaded guilty, was placed under house arrest and five years’ probation and paid $1,200 in fees, according to the Virginia-based Institute for Justice.

Lower courts in Indiana had held that the seizure of Timbs’ vehicle was disproportionate to the nature of the crime.

Wesley Hottot, the institute’s senior attorney, said Wednesday’s ruling would go a long way toward ensuring that all Americans have protection against excessive forfeiture actions by government.

“It’s an even bigger deal for Tyson Timbs and other Americans who live in jurisdictions where the courts have rejected the application of the excessive fines clause,” Hottot, who argued Timbs’ case, told Watchdog.org. Those states include Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Montana, he said.

The ruling will also serve to curb abuses that occur when criminal justice agencies use the proceeds of asset forfeitures to fund their operations, according to Hottot.

“Today’s ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’ – where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property, then sell it and keep the profits to fund their departments,” he said in a prepared statement.

The high court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pointedly rejected the position of the Indiana Supreme Court, which argued that anything classified as a civil asset forfeiture was beyond the limits of the Eighth Amendment, Hottot said.

“Now we know that instead of being a dead letter, the excessive fines clause is very much alive,” he said.

Future cases will provide more details on the definition of what constitutes an excessive fine, but a strong message has been delivered to states like Indiana and Michigan, according to Hottot.

“Trial judges in those states, instead of ignoring excessive-fines defenses, must decide them,” he said. “Now, how they decide them remains to be seen.”

But any such forfeitures cannot be an exercise in punishing someone disproportionately, according to Hottot.

The arguments for making the excessive fines clause apply to states are overwhelming, with deep historic roots, according to the high court’s decision.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” Ginsburg wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies ...”

Indiana officials, meanwhile, appear ready to accept the consequences of the high court’s ruling.

“We appreciate the court’s attention to the important issues raised in this case,” Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said in an emailed response to Watchdog.org. “Although we argued for a different outcome, we respect the court’s decision.”

Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, said the ruling would have reverberations in his state, where there are thousands of cases every year involving civil asset forfeitures.

“It very likely means that how forfeitures are practiced in many states, including Michigan, is unconstitutional,” Skorup told Watchdog.org. “... It gives a lot of onus for us to change the law.”

The case of Timbs v. Indiana indicates that in some instances of civil asset forfeiture, local and state agencies can run afoul of the Constitution, he said.

“Even if [people] commit a crime, it’s going to be harder for law enforcement to claim that they gained assets through the illegal activity,” Skorup said, adding that Timbs did not use funds gained through criminal actions to purchase his Land Rover. “... The hope is that people who make a mistake can come back and improve their lives.”

Law enforcement agencies will still be able to seize people’s property, but only if the police can show a defendant gained the asset in question through illegal activities, he said.

Hottot expressed optimism that future court decisions will further delineate what government agencies can and can’t do.

“We hope that Tyson gets his truck back and we begin to develop a body of law that tells us when and when not government can take people’s property,” he said.