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Supreme Court Restrains States' Power to Seize Property


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Eighth Amendment protections from excessive fines are enforceable against the states the court ruled in an Indiana case.

For More Analysis from Route FiftyCourt Decision Doesn’t Guarantee Radical Changes to Fines and Property Seizures

Constitutional protections against excessive fines and property forfeitures apply to states and localities in the same way they do for the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

The decision came in the case of Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 v. State of Indiana. Timbs had his $42,000 Land Rover seized by the state after he sold less than $400 of heroin to undercover police.

In issuing the ruling the justices held that a clause in the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment, protecting Americans against excessive fines, is "incorporated" against, or applies to, the states.

The clause was one of the last parts of the Bill of Rights the court had not incorporated under the 14th Amendment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion, which seven other justices joined. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the judgment, but wrote a separate opinion, saying he would have taken a different route to reach the same conclusion.

"In short," Ginsburg wrote, "the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming."

"Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is ... both 'fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty' and 'deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,'" she added, making reference to a standard that the court has used to judge whether a Bill of Rights protection is applicable to the states.

How the outcome in the case might alter state and local policies related to fines and property forfeitures remains to be seen—the court did not set a specific level for when these sorts of penalties become too severe, nor did it outlaw the practice of civil asset forfeiture entirely.

"It's hard to say exactly what the effect is," Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School, said by phone. "The existing standard has not stopped the U.S. government from seizing, you know, a fairly huge amount of stuff."

But Kontorovich explained that the decision does create a clearer pathway for pushing back against fines and property seizures in court. "There's going to be a lot of challenges," he said.

Ilya Shapiro, director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, said if he were general counsel for a municipality or a lawyer for a police department, he'd make sure to review practices that might be subject to the excessive fines clause.

He suggested that lawyers offering legal advice would say to "make sure your program is primarily one to keep order and to punish criminals, not to fund yourselves."

"The Supreme Court made clear today unanimously that it is a federal constitutional issue," Shapiro added. "That abuses by local law enforcement could wind up in federal court."

Indiana sought to take Timbs' Land Rover on the grounds that he had used it to transport heroin. He had purchased the vehicle prior to his arrest using proceeds from his father's life insurance policy.

The trial court in the case ruled that the seizure of the sport utility vehicle was “grossly disproportionate” to the gravity of Timbs' offenses and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The court noted that the Land Rover was worth more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine Timbs could face for his crime.

A divided state appeals court issued a similar ruling.

But the Indiana Supreme Court sided against Timbs and declined to review the vehicle forfeiture based on the excessive fines clause. It said the U.S. Supreme Court “has never held that the States are subject to” the constitutional provision.

Wednesday's ruling vacates that state Supreme Court decision and sends the case back to state court for further proceedings.

"For good reason," Ginsburg wrote, "the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties."

State and local fine, fee and property forfeiture policies have come under increased scrutiny in places around the U.S. during recent years, with critics saying they are prone to abuses and can be particularly problematic for poor and minority communities.

Wesley Hottot, a lawyer with the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, who argued Timbs' case before the Supreme Court in November, said in a statement that the ruling "should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit.'"

"Tyson paid his debts to society,” Hottot added. “Our hope and goal now is to get back his vehicle from the police."

This story has been updated.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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