By McE Law
Asset Forfeiture and the Eighth Amendment
Timbs v. Indiana, 586 US ___ (2019)
The United States Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government. The decision gives hope to citizens whose property has been seized by state and local governments after allegations of criminal conduct. Conversely, the decision delivers a crushing blow to local governments whose budgets are reliant on the proceeds of asset forfeiture actions.
The Eighth Amendment reads as follows: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states in cases involving bail and cruel and unusual punishment. However, until its recent ruling, it had not squarely addressed excessive fines in the context of state and local government seizures and forfeitures.
With the proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy, Indiana resident Tyson Timbs purchased a lot of drugs and a 2012 Land Rover SUV. He later pled guilty to selling heroin to an undercover cop, because it is incredibly difficult to prove you did not sell heroin to an undercover cop. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest followed by five years of probation. At the time of his arrest, police seized his Land Rover on the theory that he had used the vehicle to transport and distribute drugs. That theory was based largely on the fact that Tyson arrived at the drug deal in his Land Rover. Like most states, Indiana’s forfeiture laws require that the seizing agency show probable cause to believe that the vehicle seized was used to facilitate illegal activity.
Timbs filed suit claiming the seizure was a violation of the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines. He argued that his $42,000 Land Rover was worth four times the $10,000 maximum fine which could have been imposed for his crime. The State court agreed with Timbs and deemed the seizure “grossly disproportional to the gravity of the crime,” and therefore unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause.
After the Indiana Supreme Court overruled the decision, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shot down Indiana’s argument that the seizure was not a fine in its traditional sense and therefore not subject to Eighth Amendment analysis. The Court instead reasoned that Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is both “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”
The effect of the Court’s ruling is to drastically limit the kind of seizure Timbs endured. The current laws allow police to seize a person’s property before proving the person guilty of a crime. Local governments can then take the seized vehicles, guns or cash and use or sell them to fund their operations. Many have called the practice “policing for profit.” Ginsberg’s opinion stated that the Supreme Court has found that civil forfeiture actions are covered under the Excessive Fines Clause when “they are at least partially punitive.” The Court’s opinion in Timbs makes that federal standard now applicable in the state context.
In its succinct nine-page opinion the Court did not actually decide whether the seizure of Timbs’ vehicle equated to an excessive fine. So, Timbs must go back to court for the hope of someday driving his prized Land Rover. The Court was notably silent on what, if any, effect sitting in a police impound lot for more than four years has on a Land Rover.