Law enforcement will labor under a new restriction with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday to apply to the states the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines.”
The court ruled the state of Indiana was not allowed to confiscate a $42,000 Land Rover from a smalltime drug dealer whose offense carried a maximum $10,000 fine, even if the vehicle was used to transport drugs.
The unanimous ruling said: “Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and ‘excessive bail,’ the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal-law-enforcement authority,” the unanimous decision said.
“This safeguard, we hold, is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘deep roots in our history and tradition.’ The excessive fines clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
John Whitehead, whose Rutherford Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the confiscation was unreasonable, said, “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.
“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.”
Most law-enforcement agencies benefit directly when they confiscate cash or property from those accused of crimes.
Back in 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. He had just moved to Indiana to help his aunt rebuild her life, and had become addicted to opioids prescribed for a 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,” the institute reported. “Eventually, a man who worked as a confidential informant for law enforcement connected Timbs with undercover police officers posing as drug. 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.”
Timbs pleaded guilty to one count and was given home detention. However, the state then brought a second, separate legal case for the same offense.
It sought to confiscate his vehicle.
Timbs argued that was grossly disproportionate and the Supreme Court now has agreed.
The Rutherford Institute said the ruling “is expected to curb attempts by local and state governments to increase their revenue by seizing private property using excessive, arbitrary asset forfeiture laws.”
The decision vastly expanded the protection for suspects.
“Incorporated Bill of Rights guarantees are ‘enforced against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment according to the same standards that protect those personal rights against federal encroachment,'” the opinion said. “Thus, if a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires.”
Most state constitutions already have a similar limit.
The lower courts in Indiana had refused to permit the confiscation plan, but the state Supreme Court gave it the green light, a decision that now has been overturned.