The practice of supplementing state and local budgets by civil forfeiture received a strong rebuke from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that governments cannot use fines to raise revenue.

The decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, involved the case of a man whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by the state of Indiana after the owner was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin.

While a lower court ruled that the fine – which was in addition to $1,200 in other fines and a year of house detention – was excessive, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines does not apply to states. The U.S. high court disagreed, ruling that the forfeiture of the Land Rover was greatly disproportionate to the offense and that the owner is protected by the 14th Amendment.

Court protects individual liberty

Civil forfeiture doesn’t require a criminal charge, much less a conviction. Police only need to show that the property at issue – a house, a boat, a car – was used in connection with a crime before they seize it from the owner. To get the property back, the owner has to prove that it was not used in a crime or that they had no knowledge of the crime.

The court has previously ruled that the Eighth Amendment protects citizens against excessive fines. In the newest ruling, the court ruled 9-0 that the 14th Amendment extends that protection throughout the Union.

In her opinion, Ginsburg added that excessive fines undermine liberties, can be used to silence political enemies and can be used as a source of revenue.

Many law enforcement agencies rely on civil forfeiture to supplement their budgets. Although the amount raised through civil forfeiture throughout the country is nearly impossible to determine, there have been numerous stories of similar abuse:

  • A 72-year-old South Carolina woman tried multiple times to get drug dealers off her property. Despite her attempts, she had to fight a forfeiture attempt on her home.
  • A Philadelphia family’s home was seized after their son sold $40 of drugs on the property.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed with the ruling but not the interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Although he didn’t comment on the case directly, he did write in a 2017 ruling that the system of civil forfeiture has led to “egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”

The lawyer who argued for the Land Rover’s owner suggested that this ruling will not end civil forfeiture. It will, however, put a judge at the end of the process who can scrutinize whether the forfeiture was excessive.