The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that states are bound by the same rules against excessive fines as the federal government, incorporating a new Eighth Amendment protection against efforts to seize property.
The justices, in a 9-0 decision, made the decision in a case involving a convicted Indiana drug dealer whose sport utility vehicle police wanted to forfeit to pay off his fines — but the vehicle was worth four times what he owed. The high court said seizing the car to pay off his fine was grossly disproportionate.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delivered the court’s opinion, said protection against excessive economic sanctions was “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.”
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” she wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”
The ruling comes as police forfeiture powers are increasingly under scrutiny. Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, said civil asset forfeiture has become such a problem that the total funds seized last year were higher than the total cost of stolen property.
“This is wholly backwards, is not in keeping with the purpose of law enforcement, and needs to end,” he said.
In the case before the court, Tyson Timbs faced a maximum $10,000 fine for a drug-dealing conviction involving $400 worth of heroin. He struck a deal agreeing to pay about $1,200 as part of his sentence, which also included a year in home detention and five years on probation.
Indiana then filed papers to conduct a civil forfeiture of his 2012 Land Rover, which he bought for roughly $40,000 after receiving an inheritance from his father and which was used in his drug dealing.
A trial court ruled for Timbs, saying the value of the vehicle was far more than even his maximum penalty. An appeals court affirmed that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against him, saying the U.S. Constitution’s protection against excessive fines applied only to federal authorities.
The Supreme Court stepped in Wednesday, ruling for Timbs and establishing that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause does extend to the states, via the 14th Amendment’s due process guarantees.
Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas wrote concurring opinions agreeing with the court’s ruling, but disagreeing with the legal reasoning. They said the Eight Amendment’s protection against excessive fines should be incorporated through the 14th Amendment’s privileges and immunity clause rather than through due process.
“As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the states,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Wesley Hottot, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs, said his client had paid his debts to society.
“He took responsibility for what he did. He paid fees. He is in drug treatment. He is holding down a job. He is staying clean. Our hope and goal now is to get back his vehicle from the police so Tyson will have an easier time getting to all the different commitments he has to stay on the straight and narrow,” Mr. Hottot said.
Timbs said the state’s taking of his vehicle made life more difficult for him.
“To me it doesn’t make sense. If they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” he said.
“You need a car to do all these things. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society,” Timbs added.
Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at Duke University, said the ruling is significant, but the justices didn’t set out clear guidelines for lower courts to use in determining what constitutes a disproportionate fine.
“There will be many years of litigation of what makes a fine excessive,” he said. Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University, said academic writings have pointed out the detrimental financial penalties poor criminal defendants end up suffering for low-level crimes.
“All of these concerns that have been raised about financial penalties in lower level criminal cases will now get litigated much more and we will learn much more about how courts are going to treat them,” he said.
“It’s setting the predicate for a lot of interesting things to come,” Mr. Weisberg said of the court’s decision.
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