This summer, IJ learned that, for the sixth time in our history, we will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend individual liberty.
Loyal Liberty & Law readers will recall that in our April 2018 issue we described a Supreme Court petition IJ had just filed on behalf of Tyson Timbs. After Tyson’s car was seized by Indiana police using civil forfeiture, both the state trial court and court of appeals ruled that taking the vehicle was “grossly disproportionate” to Tyson’s wrongdoing. For that reason, the courts held, forfeiting the car violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the Indiana Supreme Court, however, things took an unusual turn: The court ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause does not apply at all to the state of Indiana. Until the U.S. Supreme Court steps in, the Indiana Supreme Court said it would “opt not to” enforce the Clause.
The case will have nationwide implications. The Excessive Fines Clause is an important check on the government’s impulse to use fines and forfeitures for raising revenue, and it is just as vital at the state level as it is at the federal.
That got IJ’s attention. Virtually all of the protections in the Bill of Rights have long been held to guard Americans not only against the federal government but also against state and local authorities. In legal terms, the protections are “incorporated” against the states under the 14th Amendment.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has never squarely applied the Excessive Fines Clause in this way. And until the Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana courts have made clear they will not honor the Excessive Fines Clause within their state.
So with IJ at his back, Tyson asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case and, in June, the Court granted our request to decide—once and for all—whether the Excessive Fines Clause protects individuals from abuse by state and local authorities.
The case will have nationwide implications. The Excessive Fines Clause is an important check on the government’s impulse to use fines and forfeitures for raising revenue, and it is just as vital at the state level as it is at the federal. In recent years, fines and forfeitures have exploded as states and municipalities turn to economic sanctions to bolster their budgets. IJ’s cases in Pagedale, Missouri, and Doraville, Georgia, described on pages 10 and 14, involve fines for offenses like having mismatched blinds and cracks in cement driveways. Our long-running lawsuit in Charlestown, Indiana, centers on city officials’ use of fines to pressure people into selling their homes. A victory for Tyson at the Supreme Court will have a direct impact on these and many other IJ cases.
Meanwhile, Tyson’s case spotlights one of the most pernicious aspects of civil forfeiture. That same revenue-raising incentive also fuels civil forfeiture all across the country. In Indiana—where Tyson lives—some prosecutors even outsource their forfeiture cases to private lawyers, who then get a cut of the money seized. We hope this case will be the first in a series at the Supreme Court fundamentally re-examining the constitutionality of civil forfeiture.
The Excessive Fines Clause should guard against these abuses. With the Supreme Court’s decision to hear our case, IJ will have the chance to solidify crucial constitutional protections for property owners nationwide.