John Kramer
John Kramer · February 1, 2018

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits excessive fines by the federal government. But does the same prohibition apply when state and local authorities impose the fine?

That is the question raised by a petition filed in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday (January 31, 2018) by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Tyson Timbs.

Tyson’s road to the Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, leaving him more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds. 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 prompted him to get his life back on track.

Tyson’s reintegration into society became harder the day the state tried to take his Land Rover through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is the controversial law enforcement tool that allows the government to confiscate a person’s property and allows the seizing agencies to keep 100% of the resulting proceeds. As documented in Tyson’s case, civil forfeiture creates a perverse financial incentive to pursue forfeiture in a way that maximizes profits for police and prosecutors.

The trial court ruled the police should return Tyson’s vehicle because forfeiture of his $40,000 car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense, and therefore unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with that conclusion, noting that Tyson had sold only four grams of heroin, all to undercover officers. But this past November, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, holding that state and local authorities do not need to comply with the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment in imposing fines or forfeitures.

Represented by the Institute for Justice, Tyson yesterday filed a petition for certiorari—an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court—asking the Court to reverse the Indiana court’s decision.

“This case is about more than just a truck,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The Excessive Fines Clause is a critical check on the government’s power to punish people and take their property. Without it, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or—using civil forfeiture—no crime at all.”

“I committed a crime, then I did my time and cleaned up my life,” said Tyson Timbs, “With forfeiture, they are trying to take away one of the few things I own—that I bought with money from my dad. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and become contributing members of society.”

Constitutional protections against excessive fines have never been more important than they are today. In the words of one Indiana Supreme Court justice, law enforcement is increasingly using “Weapons of Mass Destruction” against low-level criminal offenders, financially vulnerable property owners and even innocent people.

“The truth is that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights today,” said IJ Attorney Sam Gedge. “Police and prosecutors have every incentive to maximize their own profit, and, unless we have federal protections against excessive fines, no one’s property is safe.”

The government’s impulse to levy excessive penalties is not unique to forfeiture. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that “C]ity officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for . . . law enforcement activity.” In nearby Pagedale—five miles south of Ferguson, in another case litigated by the Institute for Justice—low-income residents have been fined thousands of dollars for trivial offenses like missing curtains, aging paint, walking on the left side of crosswalks, and enjoying a beer within 150 feet of a grill. And in Charlestown, Indiana, in yet another IJ case, local officials imposed crippling fines on low-income homeowners to force them to sell their land to a private developer.

“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” said IJ Senior Attorney Darpana Sheth, who heads the Institute for Justice’s initiative to end forfeiture abuse. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one. We hope the Supreme Court takes this issue on, so we can establish that the U.S. Constitution secures meaningful protections for private property and limits the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”

Tyson’s petition for certiorari will be considered by the Supreme Court later this year.