Arlington, Va.—The case of Tyson Timbs v. State of Indiana, which will be argued this fall before the U.S. Supreme Court, tells an all-too-familiar tale of opioid addiction and recovery in America. But this story has an important constitutional twist that may help protect millions of Americans from the abuse of government-imposed fines and fees, as well as forfeiture, which is often called “policing for profit.” The case will decide whether the U.S. Constitution’s protection against excessive fines applies to state and local governments as well as to the federal government.
As recounted in a video news release, Tyson Timbs was prescribed opioids for foot pain, which quickly led to addiction, an addiction that turned into heroin use. Although Tyson was a drug user and not a dealer, a police informant convinced him to sell drugs to the police in an undercover sting; the police sought to take Tyson’s $40,000 vehicle—which he purchased with proceeds from a life insurance policy after his father’s death—and then sell the vehicle and keep almost all the proceeds.
“The trial court in Tyson’s hometown said that it would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution for local police to take Tyson’s $40,000 vehicle for a crime involving a few hundred dollars,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which will argue Tyson’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The Indiana court of appeals agreed and said it would violate the Excessive Fines Clause. But the Indiana Supreme Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause doesn’t apply at all to state and local authorities. As we advocated in our merits brief, that’s wrong, and the U.S. Supreme Court should reverse.”
“Tyson has paid his debts to society,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “He’s taking responsibility for what he’s done. He’s paid fees. He’s in drug treatment. He’s holding down a job. He’s staying clean. But the State of Indiana wants to take his property, too, and give the proceeds to the officers who seized it. This forfeiture crosses the line.”
Tyson said, “Taking my vehicle makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles. To me it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate 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? You need a car to do all these things. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.”
“Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that almost all of the Bill of Rights applies not just to the federal government, but also to state and local authorities,” said Hottot. “One of the few outlier provisions, however, is the Excessive Fines Clause, which is at issue in this case. So far, the U.S. Supreme Court held that two of the three clauses of the Eighth Amendment apply to the states. The Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause protects your body, the Excessive Bail Clause protects your freedom, and the Excessive Fines Clause is supposed to protect your property from unreasonable fines and forfeitures. The Supreme Court should apply the entire Eighth Amendment so that every American’s rights are protected.”
Hottot said, “That’s why this case is about more than just a vehicle; it’s about whether 330 million Americans get to enjoy their rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
“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 Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court establishes that the U.S. Constitution secures meaningful protections for private property and limits the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”
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.
IJ Senior Attorney Darpana Sheth, who heads the Institute for Justice’s initiative to end forfeiture abuse, said, “Justice Clarence Thomas recently declared that it was time for the Supreme Court to once again look at the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws, and the Timbs case provides the Court with its first opportunity in more than 20 years to look at forfeiture. We hope this is one in a series of cases that the Court takes on to fundamentally reassess the constitutionality of these pernicious practices.”
When asked for his thoughts on getting his vehicle returned to him, Tyson said, “If I get it back, that means we won, and the next Tyson won’t have to deal with this like I have.”
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, IJ’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205. More information is available at https://ij.org/case/timbs-v-indiana/.]