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Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit excessive asset seizures?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP April 15, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which a defendant’s SUV was seized by the state after he was convicted of a drug crime. Many states and the federal government engage in asset seizures after drug and other arrests, often before a conviction has been obtained. All the government has to prove is that the assets in question can be tied to illegal activity — either having been purchased with proceeds of a crime or used in the commission of it. So, what was the problem here?

The SUV was worth nearly four times as much as the maximum fine allowable for the offenses the man committed. The judge argued that to allow such “grossly disproportionate” seizure would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.

The case involves an Indiana man who bought a 2012 Land Rover LR2 with the proceeds of a life insurance policy. After suffering a work-related injury, the defendant became dependent on opioid painkillers. He ultimately ended up proceeding to heroin use. When his insurance money ran out, he resorted to selling small amounts of heroin to feed his addiction.

In 2013, he sold two grams of heroin to undercover officers on two occasions. When the officers came back to him a third time, he was out of drugs to sell. Nevertheless, he was arrested.

After pleading guilty to drug dealing and other offenses, he was sentenced to a year of house arrest, five years of probation and $1,203 in fines and fees. At this point, the state attempted to seize the SUV.

“Without my car,” he says, “it is incredibly difficult to do all the things the government wants me to do to stay clean, like visit my probation officer, go to AA, and keep my job. Right now, I’m borrowing my aunt’s car to go to work so we can pay the bills, and she has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis appointments. “

The judge noted that the maximum fine allowable for the offenses the man pled guilty to was $10,000. The SUV was valued at $41,558. Therefore, the judge refused to allow the seizure.

Prosecutors appealed, and the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines can only be applied to the federal government.

That said, there is a very strong argument to be made that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the entire Eighth Amendment apply to states, as well. In fact, two federal circuits and fourteen state supreme courts have already ruled that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states in full.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the issues this winter.