State and local authorities cannot treat Americans like ATMs. There are instead federal constitutional limits to the many fines, fees and forfeitures that states and localities impose. That is the principle that Tyson Timbs and the Institute for Justice established at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies in state and local proceedings. The court reversed the Indiana Supreme Court’s determination (and that of three other states) that federal constitutional protections simply did not apply within state borders.
The case shines a spotlight on the excessive fines and fees often imposed by governments, and showcases yet another example of the inevitable abuse of power that results when government employs civil forfeiture, a process through which police and prosecutors seize someone’s property and keep the proceeds for themselves, thus giving law enforcement an incentive to maximize profits rather than seek the neutral administration of justice.
The case attracted amicus briefs from a diverse coalition of groups calling on the Court to hold that the Excessive Fines Clause applied nationwide. The groups included the Cato Institute, American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, Constitutional Accountability Center, and Pacific Legal Foundation. All of the amicus briefs can be downloaded from the Supreme Court’s website.
On remand, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in October 2019 that the Excessive Fines Clause provides meaningful protection against outsized fines and forfeitures. The court then sent the case back to the original trial court to determine whether confiscating Tyson’s vehicle is unconstitutional. The trial court ruled In Tyson’s favor in April 2020, and Tyson got his vehicle back in May. The government is appealing.
Civil forfeiture laws pose some of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today, too often making it easy and lucrative for law enforcement to take and keep property—regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence. This updated and expanded second edition of Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture makes the…