Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.
The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.
Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence” because fines are a source of revenue. …
Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, was charged in 2013 with selling $400 worth of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest but faced no prison time. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he had bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality.
A judge in Indiana had ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana’s top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.
2018 was a bad year for civil asset forfeiture, the infamous practice by which police can seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime.
In late summer, Philadelphia settled a federal class-action lawsuit over its aggressive asset forfeiture program. (How aggressive? One 78-year-old pensioner had $2,000 seized after police found her possessing a small amount of marijuana, which her retired husband used to alleviate his arthritis.) The city agreed to drastically curtail when and how it seizes property from residents and to set up a $3 million fund for victims of its sticky-fingered cops.
Asset forfeiture will continue in Philadelphia, albeit in a limited form. But the salad days when police and prosecutors could seize 300 to 500 homes a year, according to the lawsuit, are now over.
Earlier in the summer, a federal judge struck down Albuquerque’s asset forfeiture program, ruling the city “has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, which previously seemed reluctant to interfere in such cases, has agreed to consider an asset forfeiture challenge out of Indiana. … Justice Clarence Thomas also sharply criticized the practice in a 2017 dissent in a different case. “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he wrote.
When agents of the government can “seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime,” it should be clear enough that there’s a problem.