Arlington, Va.—In February 2019, Indiana resident Tyson Timbs made national headlines when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 8th Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies not just to the federal government, but to the states, as well. That decision established a rule of law for Americans nationwide. But it didn’t get Tyson his car back. Thanks to a ruling issued yesterday, however, that may soon change.
Fourteen months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Tyson’s case back to the Indiana Supreme Court. That court, in turn, sent the case back to the trial court in Grant County, Indiana, with instructions to decide anew whether taking Tyson’s vehicle was unconstitutionally excessive.
Yesterday, April 27, 2020, Judge Jeffrey D. Todd, of the Grant County Superior Court, ruled in Tyson’s favor, holding that forfeiting Tyson’s $35,000 Land Rover violates the 8th Amendment. Having charged Tyson with a low-level drug crime—the court noted—“the State sought forfeiture of his only asset; an asset he purchased using life insurance proceeds rather than drug money, and a tool essential to maintaining employment, obtaining treatment, and reducing the likelihood that he would ever again commit another criminal offense.” That mismatch between crime and punishment meant that Tyson could prove “by a significant margin” that the forfeiture was excessive. The court’s judgment directs the State to return Tyson’s car “immediately.”
“For years, this case has been important not just for me, but for thousands of people who are caught up in forfeiture lawsuits,” said Tyson. “To me, the State’s refusal to give back my car has never made sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and be contributing members of society.”
“As the court correctly recognized, the State’s campaign to take Tyson’s car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents Tyson. “The State of Indiana has spent over a half-decade trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict. No one should have to spend seven years fighting the government just to get back their car, and we look forward to the Indiana Attorney General’s restoring Tyson’s property to him without further delay.”
Tyson’s legal odyssey began shortly after his father died, leaving him more than $70,000 in life insurance proceeds. In January 2013, Tyson used some of the money to buy a new Land Rover LR2. Four months later, however, his car was seized when he sold four grams of heroin to undercover officers. Tyson pleaded guilty to drug dealing, served one year on house arrest and paid $1,200 in court fees. Most importantly, his arrest led him to get his life back on track.
But the State of Indiana was more interested in Tyson’s car. Within months of Tyson’s arrest, private contingency fee lawyers filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit on behalf of the State to take title to his $35,000 Land Rover. The government has been prosecuting the case ever since.
In 2015, the trial court ruled that the police should return Tyson’s vehicle because forfeiting it would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense and thus unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Initially, however, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, holding that state and local authorities are not bound by the 8th Amendment at all when they impose fines and forfeitures. That decision was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2020. And the case wound on. On remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Indiana Supreme Court announced an 8th Amendment standard for evaluating fines and forfeitures and returned the case to Judge Todd’s courtroom in October of last year. Back in Courtroom 1 of the Grant County Superior Court, Tyson took the witness stand at a second trial this past winter.
“Yesterday’s ruling brings to a close the State of Indiana’s seven-year crusade to confiscate one man’s car,” said Wesley Hottot, an IJ senior attorney who argued on Tyson’s behalf at the U.S. Supreme Court. “Tyson’s case went through every level of the American judicial system—in some instances, twice. The State’s relentless use of its forfeiture machine has been a deeply unjust exercise of power, and it underscores that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.”
The State has not yet said whether it intends to appeal the court’s ruling.