On The Front Lines
Victory: Unanimous Supreme Court Limits State Power to Levy Fines, Seize Property, Abuse Asset Forfeiture Laws Under Eighth Amendment
WASHINGTON, DC — In a unanimous ruling that is expected to curb attempts by local and state governments to increase their revenue by seizing private property using excessive, arbitrary asset forfeiture laws, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Timbs v. State of Indiana that state governments must abide by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on the imposition of “excessive fines” for criminal offenses.
Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had filed an amicus brief in Timbs, challenging the power of states to engage in abusive “policing for profit” tactics and asking that SCOTUS overturn a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court, which found that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit the state from seizing a vehicle worth $42,000 as a penalty for selling four grams of heroin. Lower courts had found the seizure to be “grossly disproportionate” to the offense. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the Court.
Attorneys D. Alicia Hickok, Mark Taticchi, S. Vance Wittie, and Matthew C. Sapp of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP assisted the Institute in presenting the arguments in Timbs.
“Let’s not mince words: civil asset forfeiture laws give police the green light to rob, pilfer, steal, thieve, swipe, purloin, filch and liberate American taxpayers of even more of their hard-earned valuables (especially if it happens to be significant amounts of cash) using any means, fair or foul,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Hopefully, this ruling will remove the profit incentives associated with asset forfeiture schemes that allow state governments and police to pad their pockets by engaging in what has become a modern-day form of highway robbery.”
In January 2013, Tyson Timbs used $42,000 of life insurance proceeds he received after his father’s death to purchase a Land Rover sport utility vehicle (SUV). Timbs, who had just moved to Indiana to help his aunt rebuild her life, was also having life difficulties at the time, having become addicted to an opioid pain medication he was prescribed for a painful foot injury. Timbs’ addiction escalated to such a point that he went from abusing his opioid prescription to using and then selling heroin to fund his addiction. Eventually, a man who worked as a confidential informant for law enforcement connected Timbs with undercover police officers posing as drug buyers. On two occasions, Timbs sold the police a total of four grams of heroin for $385. He was arrested while driving to meet the police for a third sale.
Timbs pleaded guilty to one count of selling a controlled substance and was sentenced to 6 years in jail, but was released for home detention and probation. The state also brought a separate lawsuit seeking forfeiture of Timbs’ SUV under a state law allowing the seizure of property used to facilitate a criminal offense. A trial court denied the state’s forfeiture claim after finding that Timbs had purchased the SUV legally, not with crime-tainted funds, and that that forfeiture would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity of [Timbs’] offense,” thereby violating the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. This decision was initially affirmed on appeal, but was thereafter reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court has never held that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states.
In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute argued that the excessive fines clause does limit the power of states. Moreover, Institute attorneys warned that states and municipalities face a strong temptation to use fines, civil penalties, and asset forfeitures to bridge their fiscal shortfalls, and the Eighth Amendment is needed to prevent abuse of this power.