Criminal Justice

Supreme Court Places Limitations on States and Localities Authority to Impose Excessive Fines

On February 20, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided Timbs v. Indiana, a decision that amounted to a tremendous victory for private property rights. The Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is now applicable not only to the federal government, but also against states and localities as well. Essentially, the Constitution provides that every state must guarantee that property owners will not be subjected to excessive fines and forfeitures. “This is great news for anyone who values the protection of property rights and important constitutional limits on the power of government,” said Sam Gedge of the Institute for Justice.

In January 2013, Tyson Timbs purchased a Land Rover for $42,000 using his father’s life insurance policy. In the following months, Timbs used the vehicle for trips within Indiana to sell roughly $400 worth of heroin. After selling to an informant several times, Timbs was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to one felony count of distribution of narcotics.

After the state seized and sought to obtain a judgement of forfeiture on Timbs’s vehicle, the trial court ruled that the forfeiture would be an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment and ordered the immediate release of his vehicle. Given that the maximum statutory fine for Timbs’ felony dealing charge was $10,000, the trial court found that the forfeiture of a $42,000 vehicle to be a disproportionate punishment.

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had never clearly incorporated the Eighth Amendment against the states via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the seizure and forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle constituted a violation of the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment and incorporated that clause against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process that allows property to be seized and forfeited without ever charging, much less convicting, the property owner of a crime. At times, these seizures are conducted with little, if any, actual evidence tying property or currency to an illicit act. Property owners are then tasked with navigating a legal landscape where they often need to hire an attorney and prove the property’s innocence from criminal activity. Furthermore, the litigation process to get seized property returned can prove more costly for the owner of the property.

Since 2014, more than 25 states have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or making the civil asset forfeiture process more transparent, such as requiring the agency to disclose what property was seized, whether the property was forfeited, and where the forfeiture proceeds are directed and whether the property owner was charged with a crime. Many of these states based their reform efforts on the ALEC models Reporting of Seizure and Forfeiture Act and the Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act. These model policies allow for states to better protect property rights and allow for a more open and transparent asset forfeiture process.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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