Indiana Returns Vehicle in Landmark Civil Forfeiture Case, But Government Continues its Appeal

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 27, 2020

Arlington, Va.—For Tyson Timbs, the wheels of justice are still turning. Nearly seven years to the day after Indiana law enforcement seized his vehicle—and over a year after a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court—the Marion, Indiana man returned home yesterday to find his car in his driveway. Last month, the trial court in Grant County ruled that forfeiting Tyson’s vehicle would violate the 8th Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Attorney General has appealed, placing Tyson’s case before the Indiana Supreme Court for a third time. While that latest appeal proceeds, however, the vehicle is back with its rightful owner.

Photo by Richarh Tyson

“It was a weird feeling today. I didn’t believe that the vehicle would be mine again until I got home and saw it in my driveway,” Tyson said.

In April, Judge Jeffrey D. Todd, of the Grant County Superior Court, ruled that forfeiting Tyson’s $35,000 Land Rover amounted to an unconstitutional excessive fine under the 8th Amendment. The court noted, “the State sought forfeiture of [Tyson’s] 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 directed the State to return Tyson’s car immediately.

Yesterday [Tuesday, May 26], the State of Indiana returned the vehicle.

“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 ongoing 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 now spent nearly seven years trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict—and the Indiana Attorney General is still at it. No one should have to spend seven years fighting the government just to get back their car.”

“Tyson’s case has gone through every level of the American judicial system—in some instances, twice,” said IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot, who argued Tyson’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The State’s relentless use of its forfeiture machine is—and continues to be—a profoundly unjust exercise of power, and it underscores that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.”