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IJ Works Wonders: An 8-Year Battle Against Excessive Fines

As part of the Institute for Justice’s 30th Anniversary celebration (1991-2021), our “IJ Works Wonders” series looks back on IJ cases that fundamentally transformed the law and the lives of our clients.

Civil forfeiture—known colloquially as “policing for profit”—is a national scourge, often targeting those who can least afford to defend themselves. To see how, look no further than the protracted excessive-fines case the Institute for Justice litigated on behalf of Tyson Timbs from Indiana.

If Tyson’s fight had been just about getting back his car—seized by police in 2013—he might well have given up long ago. Eight years is a long time to fight about a car, even one worth $40,000 when he first purchased it. But for Tyson, the fight had always been about a principle: The government should not have a free hand to exploit the criminal-justice system for financial gain.

So Tyson has stayed in the fight for nearly a decade, securing victory after landmark victory in a case that has become a classic example both of governmental overreach and of the Constitution’s enduring role in securing our most basic rights.

Tyson’s legal odyssey began shortly after his father died in 2012, leaving Tyson more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds. Tyson used some of the money to buy a new car, a Land Rover. Around the same time, however, he relapsed into drug use. (Years earlier, he’d begun struggling with addiction after being prescribed hydrocodone for foot pain.) A few months later, he came to the attention of the local drug taskforce. The taskforce could have directed him to drug treatment, to Indiana’s problem-solving courts, or to any number of other resources for addicts. Instead, officers teamed up with an informant to turn Tyson into a drug dealer; at the behest of government agents, Tyson (who had never dealt drugs before) sold undercover officers a small amount of heroin for a few hundred dollars. He was arrested, charged with felony dealing, and pleaded guilty. And since then, he has turned his life around—holding down jobs, participating in treatment and caring for a sick aunt.

But throughout, the state of Indiana remained far more interested in Tyson’s car. Within months of his arrest, private contingency-fee lawyers filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit on behalf of the state to take title to the Land Rover.

In 2015, the trial court ruled that the police should return his vehicle because forfeiting it would be “grossly disproportional” and thus unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. After which the Indiana Supreme Court took the case and held—incredibly—that the Excessive Fines Clause doesn’t apply to the states at all.

That’s when the Institute for Justice got involved. Representing Tyson, we took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and established a landmark legal ruling: The Excessive Fines Clause applies not just to the federal government, but to the states as well.

But that still didn’t get Tyson his car back. IJ stuck with Tyson and argued his case all the way from the trial court back up to the Indiana Supreme Court—arguing for a second and third time before the state’s high court, which this summer ruled decisively that forfeiting Tyson’s vehicle violated the Excessive Fines Clause. The majority observed, “Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick, this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again.” But after eight years, the court held, “Timbs met his high burden to show that the harshness of his Land Rover’s forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse.”

Final victory? Well, maybe. The state of Indiana has a few more months to decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case for a second time. And if the past is any guide, the government will stop at nothing to confiscate Tyson’s car.

But if Tyson’s case showcases government at its worst, it also showed IJ clients at their best. For ordinary Americans, being targeted by the government is frightening. Standing up to bullies takes courage. And here at IJ, it’s our privilege to represent people like Tyson who have the grit to take on bullies and to make their states—and sometimes, the whole country—a freer place. Since Tyson’s landmark Supreme Court victory, IJ has invoked his case across the county—in a challenge to excessive fines in Dunedin, Florida, in a class action case against Chicago’s abusive car-impound program, and in amicus briefs from New Jersey to Washington state. The Washington Supreme Court is the latest court to cite Timbs in an opinion reinforcing property rights protections.

The fight goes on, and Tyson’s case will stand as an important marker in that fight for decades to come.

Sam Gedge is an IJ attorney.

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