I have written repeatedly about the abuse of the so-called ‘civil asset forfeiture’ provisions in the law that many government authorities use to seize the assets of people simply because of the suspicion that they may have been involved in a crime. The government holds on to these assets even if the person is not even charged with the crime. It should not be surprising that it is mostly low-income people who are at the receiving end. The people whose assets are seized have to sue the government to get them back, a complicated and expensive process, and many of the affected people simply do not have the resources to do so, so they end up losing their homes and their cars, which are often the only assets they have.
But in an important ruling, the US Supreme Court stated unanimously that the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, that says in its entirety that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”, meant that this taking of assets in excess of the value of the crime was unconstitutional and more importantly, that the “excessive fines” clause also applied to state and local governments because of the due process provision of the 14th Amendment.
The case began back in 2015, when Tyson Timbs sold heroin to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to one year of home detention, living with his aunt, followed by five years on probation. The state court also ordered Timbs to forfeit his 2012 Land Rover, which he had purchased for approximately $42,000 with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy, on the theory that he had used the car to transport drugs.
Timbs challenged the forfeiture of his Land Rover as a violation of the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, and a state trial court agreed. It reasoned that because the SUV was worth four times more than the maximum fine that the state could impose, requiring Timbs to forfeit it would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of Timbs’ crime.
An intermediate appeals court upheld that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. It ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court has never specifically said that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines – part of the Bill of Rights, which was originally interpreted as applying only to the federal government – applies to the states.
Timbs asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, and today the justices held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines does indeed apply to the states. In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court seemed to regard the basic question before it as an easy one. The justices explained that the “historical and logical case for concluding that” the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – is “overwhelming.”
As I have written before, some states and local governments and police departments have used civil asset forfeiture as a way of funding their operations and have been seizing the property of people cavalierly, knowing that few will be able to challenge it. I hope this ruling ends that practice.