As Liberty & Law readers know, officials at all levels of government—federal, state and local alike—are increasingly relying on fines and forfeitures to bolster their budgets. That perverse profit incentive makes these kinds of sanctions one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.
IJ’s latest foray into combating unjust fines and forfeitures finds us immediately before the U.S. Supreme Court. On behalf of Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, we have asked the Court to address a question that—remarkably—it has yet to clearly answer: Does the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protect Americans against overreach by state and local authorities?
Tyson’s path to the U.S. Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, when he received more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds and bought a new car. For years, Tyson struggled with drug addiction. Soon after buying his car, he sold four grams of heroin to fund his addiction. The buyers were undercover officers, and police arrested him. They seized his car, too.
Tyson pleaded guilty, which led to house arrest, then probation, and $1,200 in fees. Most importantly, the experience was a wake-up call. Tyson got his life back on track, taking steps to battle his addiction and getting involved in a community taskforce on substance abuse. He has been clean for three years now.
On behalf of Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, we have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to address a question that—remarkably—it has yet to clearly answer: Does the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protect Americans against overreach by state and local authorities?
But the state of Indiana is more interested in Tyson’s car, a Land Rover worth $40,000.
Within months of his arrest, contingency-fee lawyers filed a forfeiture suit on behalf of the state. The trial court ruled for Tyson. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense, the court decided that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed.
Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state courts, the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the court said, “we elect not to impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”
So Tyson—with IJ at his back—is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
It is critical that the Bill of Rights protect citizens not just against the federal government, but against states and municipalities, too. In fact, most of the Bill of Rights already applies to all levels of government.
The Excessive Fines Clause should be no different. State and local authorities—no less than the federal government—regularly misuse economic sanctions. Recall IJ’s case in Pagedale, Missouri, which fined residents to bolster its budget. Or our case in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, which seized $53,000 from a Christian rock band. Indiana, Tyson’s home state, even doubles down on the distorting effects of civil forfeiture by letting private lawyers act as contingency-fee prosecutors.
The Excessive Fines Clause is a vital check on unjust monetary penalties. And as the Indiana Supreme Court made clear, only the U.S. Supreme Court can answer once and for all whether the Clause protects citizens against rapacious state and local authorities. Stay tuned.