By Wesley Hottot
In a historic decision that will have a lasting impact for liberty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9–0 in IJ’s favor that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to state and local authorities. In Timbs v. Indiana, the Court deemed “overwhelming” IJ’s evidence that legal protections against excessive fines and forfeitures stretch back to Magna Carta and that they remain just as relevant—if not more so—today.
The case began in November 2017, when the Indiana Supreme Court determined that fines and forfeitures were essentially a Constitution-free zone because the U.S. Supreme Court had never ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applied to state and local authorities. Effectively, that meant that state and local governments could take everything a person owned for even a minor crime or, using civil forfeiture, no crime at all.
Days after that decision, I flew to rural Indiana with fellow IJ attorney Sam Gedge to meet Tyson Timbs—a recovering addict whose $42,000 truck was seized by the state over a first-time drug offense involving just a few hundred dollars. What’s more, the truck was forfeited after Tyson paid his court-ordered penalty and served out his punishment in full. When Tyson heard about IJ’s principled philosophy and record of success, he agreed to let us take over his case.
It is a remarkable accomplishment to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to hear your case in the first place. The Court takes less than 2 percent of the cases that come before it. A tremendous effort—by IJ’s attorneys, communications staff, production staff, and leadership—went into getting the Court to accept the case in June 2018. We then redoubled those efforts, bringing all aspects of our public interest arsenal to bear to ensure this landmark victory. When the decision came down, hundreds of media outlets covered the news, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post in front-page stories.
In addition to the unanimous decision about excessive fines authored by Justice Ginsburg, two Justices—Thomas and Gorsuch—also agreed with IJ that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment is a meaningful source of rights. This matters because rehabilitating the Privileges or Immunities Clause after years of neglect by the high court is an important part of IJ’s long-term legal strategy, and doing so will have important consequences in our fight for economic liberty and other vital rights.
The ruling in Timbs puts to rest the debate about whether there are limits on the government’s ability to take a person’s property. The Court affirmed that there are. The next pressing question is what exactly those limits look like. No one is better positioned to litigate that issue, and to protect all Americans from abusive fines, fees, and forfeitures, than IJ.
Wesley Hottot is an IJ senior attorney.