Timbs v. Indiana: The Fight Against Excessive Fines Five Years Later

Sam Gedge
Sam Gedge  ·  February 14, 2024

A few minutes after 10:00 a.m., on February 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Timbs v. Indiana, IJ’s seventh case before the high court. The decision was a victory not only for IJ client Tyson Timbs—fighting the forfeiture of his $40,000 car for a crime involving a few hundred dollars—but for all Americans facing fines and forfeitures disproportionate to their offense. Unanimously, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on imposing excessive fines applies to cities and states, and not just the federal government.

In one sense, the decision in Timbs was something of a forgone conclusion, as almost all of the Bill of Rights has, slowly but surely, been expanded to the states. In one of the punchier lines from a Supreme Court argument, Justice Neil Gorsuch responded with disbelief (“Really? Come on General.”) when Indiana’s Solicitor General suggested that the states have a free hand to impose excessive fines. At the same time, though, the Court’s full-throated endorsement of the Excessive Fines Clause breathed life into a Bill of Rights protection that often has gotten short shrift.

In the half-decade since, IJ has worked tirelessly to reinforce and expand the Clause and its state-law counterparts as a bulwark against prosecutorial abuse. Here are some highlights of that work:

In Lantana, Florida, we’re representing Sandy Martinez, a mother of three who works hard to get by. But local code enforcement has made things astronomically harder by fining Sandy $101,750. Why? Because her car sometimes didn’t fit perfectly on her small driveway, and two of its wheels rested on grass rather than asphalt. The town also fined Sandy $47,000 after a storm damaged one of her fences. And another $16,000 for cracks on her driveway that she couldn’t immediately afford to fix. With IJ’s help, Sandy is challenging these runaway fines under the excessive fines clause in Florida’s state constitution.

Farther north, IJ is harnessing excessive fines protections to combat abusive impound rackets. Chicago has long fined people thousands of dollars if their vehicles are used for a grab-bag of criminal offenses—even if the owners themselves had nothing to do with the crime. Retired law enforcement officer Allie Nelson was recovering from cancer treatment in Texas when her granddaughter’s then-boyfriend, back in Chicago, drove Allie’s car without her permission, got pulled over, and was found with weed. Allie’s car was impounded. And for the boyfriend’s misdeeds, Allie—not the ne’er-do-well boyfriend—was hit with a $2,000 fine. When she couldn’t pay it (and the $3,925 in towing and storage fees) the city scrapped her car. Invoking the Illinois Constitution’s excessive fines clause, Allie and other victims of Chicago’s impound scheme are tackling the system with a suit seeking system-wide remedies.

With governments ever hungry to profit by imposing huge fines, IJ must also find and close any loopholes that governments try to open in our Timbs victory. Consider Monica Toth, a Boston-area grandmother who was hit with a $2.17 million civil penalty from the IRS for failing to file a one-page foreign bank account form. A federal appeals court held that Monica’s penalty wasn’t a “fine” at all—eliciting another raised eyebrow from Justice Gorsuch, who dissented last year from the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision not to review Monica’s case when IJ petitioned them to. We’re on the lookout for other cases to make sure governments can’t impose outrageous fines simply by not calling them fines.

For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court in Timbs recognized that the Constitution’s “[p]rotection against excessive punitive economic sanctions” is “both ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty’ and ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’” But for a fundamental right to be meaningful, courts must protect it. That is why cases like Sandy’s, Allie’s, and Monica’s are so important: They invite the courts to build on the foundation laid by Timbs and construe the Excessive Fines Clause as a real-world check on the government’s power to punish.

And what about Tyson, whose fight to keep his car landed him on the front page of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion? For him (as loyal Liberty & Law readers will recall) the fight didn’t end with the Supreme Court’s decision on February 20, 2019. With IJ on his side, he had to argue before the Indiana Supreme Court for a second time. And defend himself at a second forfeiture trial in his hometown of Marion, Indiana. And defend that trial court victory before the Indiana Supreme Court once again. His case ended in final victory in June 2021 when the Indiana Supreme Court applied a robust understanding of the Excessive Fines Clause to affirm that Tyson was entitled to recover his car. And with that, the court said, “the seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.”

But IJ’s fight to protect ordinary Americans from crippling fines continues to gain momentum.

Sam Gedge is an IJ senior attorney.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.