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Supreme Court rules ‘excessive fines’ clause applies to states

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP February 28, 2019

In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines” applies to states and local governments as well as to the federal government. The high court had never actually ruled that the clause applied to states and local governments, although many people assumed that it did.

The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is generally thought to apply to the states as a result of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws. However, the Supreme Court has not officially declared that the entire Bill of Rights applies to states and local governments, but has only ruled that certain individual clauses do.

The crucial result of this case is on the civil asset forfeiture process. When police allege that a suspect’s cash or property is connected to criminal activity, especially drug crimes, they can seize that property. The suspect must then prove that the assets were not the proceeds of or used to facilitate crime. If they cannot do so, which is very common, the police get to keep most or all of the seized assets. Civil asset forfeiture occurs before the suspect has even been convicted.

Policing for profit — or just to make ends meet

Civil asset forfeiture has been referred to as “policing for profit” because it is open to abuse by law enforcement. They could target individuals with criminal charges merely to seize certain desirable property. Or, they might apply civil asset forfeiture unevenly, targeting minority communities at a greater rate than whites. And, as many as 60 percent of police agencies rely on the proceeds of civil asset forfeitures as a “necessary” part of their budgets, which may be an unconstitutional way of funding police.

Are civil asset forfeitures actually fines?

The Supreme Court specifically held that civil asset forfeitures are fines for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment. Since they are fines, the “excessive fines” clause applies. In other words, governments can no longer authorize civil asset forfeitures that are excessive. However, the court offered little guidance on what constitutes an excessive fine.

$40,000 Land Rover seized over a minor drug offense

The case before the Supreme Court involved an Indiana man who became addicted to painkillers and eventually heroin. In an effort to support his habit, he sold a small amount of heroin to an undercover officer. Since the drug was transported in his Land Rover, the $40,000 SUV was seized. The maximum fine for the man’s offense was $10,000.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Indiana to determine if the seizure was indeed excessive.