When Tyson Timbs of Indiana was convicted of selling a small amount of heroin in order to support his opioid addiction, he was sentenced to a year of home detention and five years of probation. The court could also have fined him up to $10,000, but chose not to. But Indiana law allows private law firms to intervene on behalf of the state, and one filed a civil forfeiture case and seized Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover.
Civil forfeiture is controversial. The basic idea is that, when someone is charged with a crime, their money and assets may have been involved in criminal activity. A government (or third parties acting on its behalf) can essentially charge the money and assets with involvement in criminal activity. The owner then has the burden of proving their money and property innocent. If they fail to do so, the valuables become the property of the government. This often happens before the defendant has been convicted of any crime.
Yet the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “excessive fines.” Timbs’ trial court ruled that, since the Land Rover was worth more than four times the maximum fine that could be imposed, the seizure constituted an excessive and thus unconstitutional fine. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the case.
For its part, Indiana pointed out that the Eighth Amendment’ excessive fines clause has never been applied to actions by states. Originally, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) applied only to federal action. Over time, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that most parts of the Bill of Rights do apply to the states — although not the excessive fines clause. Is this because the clause does not apply to the states or because the court hasn’t had occasion to apply it?
Indiana contended that the clause does not apply to the states. Justice Neil Gorsuch responded with disbelief, stating that “we all agree that the excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states’ and demanding that Indiana’s attorney “at least agree on that.” According to Slate, the other justices appeared to agree.
Indiana’s backup argument was that the seizure was of property, not money, and so cannot be considered a fine for the purpose of the Eighth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1933 that property seizures do count as fines for this purpose. Several justices appeared to believe that many asset forfeitures occurring in modern times are grossly disproportionate to the offenses and may be unconstitutional.
Are state civil forfeitures limited by the excessive fines clause? The Supreme Court’s ruling is not expected for several months.