The Supreme Court takes on civil forfeiture laws

On Behalf of | Dec 21, 2018 | Uncategorized

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on a case from Indiana that challenges the civil forfeiture law. The Court hasn’t heard a case on this issue in over 20 years. Under civil forfeiture laws, states often seize property like cars and houses if they can tie the property in any way to a crime. Timbs v. Indiana may change how states can do that.


Background of the case

Tyson Timbs brought the case after the state of Indiana seized his Land Rover when the police arrested him for selling $400 worth of heroin to an undercover cop. Timbs successfully argued to an Indiana trial judge that taking an SUV was grossly disproportionate to his $400 crime, especially in light of the fact that he paid other fines and had one year of house detention. The U.S. Constitution bans excessive fines under the Eighth Amendment.

The state appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the ban on excessive fines does not apply to the states.

Likelihood of success for Timbs

Nearly every other measure in the Bill of Rights applies to the states. Carving out an exception for the excessive fines ban seems unlikely for the Supreme Court, according to legal experts. They may be right, f the questions from the Justices at oral arguments are any indication. Most of the Justices showed outright skepticism.

Justice Gorsuch started the questioning by asking the state’s attorney if they could “at least agree” that the excessive fines ban does apply to the states, even though the scope of the ban may be up for debate. When the lawyer responded that it does not apply when the fine is levied against property, Gorsuch responded, “Really? Come on, General!” The justices did seem concerned with trying to decide what sort of scale courts would use to define excessive fines.

History of the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment also includes protections from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail, both of which the Supreme Court applied to states decades ago using the “incorporation” doctrine of the 14th Amendment. In addition, the Supreme Court has stated multiple times that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states as a whole, but it has never dealt specifically with the excessive fines clause. The Indiana Supreme Court claims the U.S. Supreme Court has not given clear direction on this matter.

Many state high courts already recognize the excessive fines clause, including Alabama’s.  States like Indiana will find out in June if the protections extend to them.