On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States voted unanimously “that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose fines and seize property.” In her decision, Justice Ginsberg wrote “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. 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.”
The example put forth by Justice Breyer for trays the broad powers that police and prosecutors possess and are willing to use in order to raise revenue and punish individuals through the process of civil forfeiture. Many Americans are certainly unaware of this excessive power held by the state.
The Timbs v. Indiana case
The case in question, Timbs v. Indiana, is typical of how the civil forfeiture laws already in place are broadly implemented, with law enforcement seizing property in an effort to fight the never-ending “War on Drugs.” In this specific case, Tyson Timbs was convicted of selling a few hundred dollars’ worth of heroin (consisting of a few grams) to an undercover officer.
Timbs received a suspended sentence of six years for his drug crime that included one year of home confinement. He was also given five years of probation. However, in addition to the sentence laid out by the court for his crime, the state of Indiana, through existing civil forfeiture law, seized his vehicle – a 2012 Land Rover – with an estimated worth of $42,000 because at some point, he had carried drugs in the car.
Let us repeat that: Timbs had not used the car for the sale of his drugs. But, because it was reasonable to assume that he may have had those drugs in his car at one point, Indiana made a claim on his car.
Timbs challenged the state’s seizure of his vehicle, asserting it as a violation of the prohibition on excessive fines provided under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The maximum fine the trial court in his case would have been $10,000.
The lawsuit filed by Timbs was successful in two lower state courts. However, Indiana’s Supreme Court asserted that he did not have a right to sue due to the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court never specifically targeted the Constitution’s prohibition of excessive fines to the states. But based oral arguments heard in the Supreme Court in November, the Justices may side with Timbs on the question of whether the law applies to the states.
The case may open the door for other lawsuits challenging local governments when those governments seize property through the use of civil forfeiture. Some have referred to the efforts of local governments and police departments in raising billions of dollars for the state as “policing for profit.”
Civil forfeiture requires no crime
Even though in the Indiana case Timbs was convicted of a crime, the law allowing the use of civil forfeiture does not require an arrest or a criminal conviction to have occurred. Some jurisdictions give authority to police officers to seize property and cash from individuals they suspect were involved in criminal activity. The standard of proof involved for such seizures is not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the burden is on property owners in civil forfeiture proceedings to prove their seized assets are legitimate.
Various states with divergent political leanings have already passed laws that limit the power of civil forfeiture, including Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. Although the Supreme Court is not likely to directly reduce the power of civil forfeiture at this time as a matter written law, the words and sentiments expressed by the Justices will likely have influence on these and other states in which opposition to the practice has been generating for a number of years.
At Banks and Jones, you may be reeling at the moment from a criminal drug charge filed against you. If this is the case, a competent and understanding Knoxville criminal defense attorney from our team can listen to your side of the story, and build a defense on your behalf to protect your rights and seeks the best possible outcome in your case. To schedule free, initial consultation, call us today at 865.407.2122 or send us a request through our contact form.