The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Feb. 20 that civil asset forfeiture as widely practiced by state and local governments can violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its prohibition against excessive fines. On her second day back on the bench after undergoing cancer surgery, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg announced the Timbs v. Indiana decision.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. … Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”
Tyson Timbs, a recovering drug addict, received cash from his father’s life insurance policy in 2012 and used about $42,000 to purchase a Land Rover. He also slipped back into drug use, financing his habit by selling small amounts of heroin to others. After undercover officers arrested him, he pled guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest, five years of probation, and $1,200 in fines, which he paid. Indiana officials also confiscated his Land Rover using asset forfeiture laws because the truck had been used to transport drugs.
With pro bono representation from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, Timbs sued in Grant County Superior Court and won. The court ruled that the value of the Land Rover was more than four times his potential maximum penalty of $10,000 and 30 times the fine he paid, thus violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines.
Timbs prevailed again at the Indiana Appellate Court, but lost at the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the Eighth Amendment had not been incorporated to the states. This new U.S. Supreme Court decision has established precedent that definitively applies the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines to state and local governments.
“Today, a unanimous Supreme Court struck a blow against the organized system of highway robbery that state governments have used to take the life savings of people over minor drug offenses,” said Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark after the verdict. “Thanks to the efforts of attorneys from the Institute for Justice, people all over the country will be safer from civil asset forfeiture.”
Civil asset forfeiture has long been used to take property from people who haven’t even been charged with a crime, much less convicted, because officials suspect that property could potentially have been used in connection with criminal activity. By preventing state and local law enforcement agencies from confiscating property valued out of proportion with the potential penalties for suspected crimes, however, this new ruling should drastically scale back most existing forfeiture practices.
The Institute for Justice received amicus brief support from the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, but support for this case also proved to span the ideological spectrum. The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Constitutional Accountability Center, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also filed their own supportive briefs alongside the right-leaning Judicial Watch, the Institute for Free Speech, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“This judicial check on government expropriation illustrates the resilience of the separation of powers provided for by the Constitution,” Sarwark said. “It also illustrates how people from across the political and social landscape can band together to halt government abuses. When we work together for individual liberty, we can move mountains.”