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U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Excessive Fines in Property Confiscation Case

March 13, 2019

civil asset forfeiture laws allow the police to confiscate property

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines applies to the states.

In the case of Timbs v Indiana, police seized Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover after he sold several grams of heroin to an undercover police officer in a sting operation. Indiana’s civil asset forfeiture laws allowed the police to confiscate his $42,000 vehicle because of its suspected connection with a crime. Asset forfeiture allows officials to seize cars, cash, real estate, and other personal property without convicting a person of a criminal offense. Law enforcement agencies often retain the proceeds for their use.

The Land Rover is worth significantly more than the $10,000 fine Timbs faced for dealing heroin. Timbs purchased the Land Rover with a life insurance payout after his father died. The vehicle had no connection to the case other than Timbs using it to drive to the drug sale.

'Selective Incorporation'

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2018, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher argued the excessive-fines clause in the Eighth Amendment applies only to the federal government.

In the Court’s opinion delivered on February 20, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stated the Eighth Amendment was incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment’s “due process” clause. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argues it is incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment’s language that no state “shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

“The [Supreme] Court has come to understand [the due process] sentence to mean the states are bound by the fundamental precepts of the Bill of Rights,” said Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney for the Institute of Justice, who represented Timbs in the Supreme Court. “They’ve done so through a process of what is called ‘selective incorporation.’”

In previous decisions, the Supreme Court held the other two clauses of the amendment—cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail—apply to the states. The Indiana Supreme Court held the excessive fines clause had not been incorporated by the 14th Amendment because the U.S. Supreme Court had never ruled specifically that it had been.

“Two of the three provisions of the Eighth Amendment, the cruel and unusual punishment clause and the excessive bail cause, both already apply to the states,” said Hottot. “So it's a bit bizarre to me that the Indiana Supreme Court thought that the excessive fines clause does not.”

‘Serious Fines for Serious Crimes’

The Institute for Justice isn’t opposed to state-imposed fines for those convicted of crimes, says Hottot.

“I have no quarrel with the sovereign power to take away the proceeds or the instrumentalities of a crime,” said Hottot. “But we have to be careful in accepting the government's view of what amounts to proceeds or instrumentalities.

“In this case, it is true that Tyson drove to one of these drug deals in that vehicle,” Hottot said. “So, if you take an absolutist view of instrumentality, then they could take that vehicle. But they could also take the clothes he was wearing, the home that he woke up in, or anything.”

There are standards for punishment set by the U.S. Constitution that states must meet when imposing monetary penalties as punishment for a crime, says Hottot.

“Nothing about our argument prevents the government from imposing serious fines for serious crimes,” said Hottot. “Our position is that there has to be some federal constitutional minimum below which states may not fall. You can't excessively fine someone or forfeit them.”

Evading Reforms

Although several states have reformed their laws governing civil asset forfeiture in recent years, the federal government has undermined those efforts, says Matthew Glans, a senior policy analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

 “A 2011 study found local and state law enforcement agencies in states choosing to make civil forfeiture more difficult and less financially rewarding through state laws have tended to turn to federal equitable sharing to make up for lost funds,” said Glans.

In equitable sharing, the federal government “adopts” the case, and federal officials share the proceeds of the forfeiture with the state, says Glans.

Jeff Reynolds (jefferyreynolds@comcast.net) writes from Portland, Oregon.

Internet Info

Tyson Timbs v. Indiana, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 17-1091, opinion and concurring opinions, February 20, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/supreme-court-eighth-amendment-protection-against-excessive-fines-applies-to-states

Author
Jeff Reynolds writes for The Heartland Institute.