The days of states and municipalities relying on civil forfeiture to make ends meet may be coming to an end. In a rare unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on February 20th that the Constitution's prohibition on excessive fines, as per the Eighth Amendment, applies to state and local governments.
The decision means law enforcement's ongoing effort to seize cash, motor vehicles, and other property belonging to those convicted of a crime – or even those arrested for a crime – will hopefully be scrutinized in a fairer way now.
Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments
As per the eighth amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” State and municipalities have long been subject to the bail and punishment aspects of the eighth amendment, and now they must adhere to the excessive fines provision.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced the decision, noting that excessive fines can chill the speech of political enemies, or such fines “may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”
While the Bill of Rights protects citizens against federal government actions, the Supreme Court often applies Bill of Rights provisions to states and local governments as per the 14th amendment's due process clause.
Timbs vs. Indiana
The case concerned Tyson Timbs – an Indiana resident whose Land Rover SUV was seized in 2015 after his arrest for selling a small amount of heroin. He sued to retrieve his vehicle, and while the Supreme Court's decision doesn't mean he'll get his car back, he can attempt to do so in court once more.
Timbs bought the car with the proceeds from his father's life insurance policy. Earlier, he had injured his foot and became reliant on opioids, eventually using heroin and selling the drug to support his habit. After his guilty plea, he was sentenced to home arrest and ordered to attend a court-mandated drug addiction treatment program.
The state hired a private firm to file a lawsuit forcing Timbs to give up his SUV, worth $42,000 at the time, under an Indiana law permitting seizure of vehicles used in criminal statute violations. Timbs sued to get his vehicle back, and a judge agreed with him, noting the maximum financial penalty for Timbs' crime was only $10,000. However, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in Timbs' case that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines didn't apply to states.
Reliance on Fines and Forfeiture
Police departments nationwide have come to rely on the income from assets seized under civil forfeiture. One study found 60 percent of the 1,400 of municipal and county agencies nationwide surveyed described profits from civil forfeiture as a necessary part of their budgets. According to the ACLU, as of 2017 over $50 billion was owed by 10 million people in forfeitures, fees, and fines.
On the federal level, former Attorney General Eric Holder limited the Department of Justice's reliance on civil forfeiture profits, but that wasn't the case with President Trump's first AG, Jeff Sessions. Sessions encouraged the civil forfeiture program. Thankfully, a bipartisan group of Senators objected to his championship of civil forfeiture.
Will this new US Supreme Court ruling, provide further momentum against the corruption-inspiring practice by law enforcement to seize assets before even guilt is proven? Only time will tell.