John Kramer
John Kramer · June 18, 2018

This morning (June 18, 2018), the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of a case that has nationwide implications for both property rights and criminal justice. The question presented is whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protects against sanctions imposed by state and local authorities.

The appeal is brought by Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

The case at the heart of this important constitutional debate deals with Tyson, a young man who is overcoming opioid addiction, a recovery made all the more difficult by the government’s seizure of his only vehicle—a $40,000 vehicle he bought with the proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy. The vehicle was seized from him after he was convicted of selling $225 worth of drugs to undercover officers.

“Without my car, it is incredibly difficult to do all the things the government wants me to do to stay clean, like visit my probation officer, go to AA, and keep my job,” explained Tyson. “Right now, I’m borrowing my aunt’s car to go to work so we can pay the bills, and she has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis appointments. You need a car to do all of these things.”

Tyson continued, “Fighting to stay clean is hard enough. I pleaded guilty to my crime. I served one year of house arrest and paid $1,200 in court fees. I’ve served out my punishment, but now the government is going beyond seeking justice. It wants to punish me out of proportion to the crime I committed. I just want to get my vehicle back and keep my life on track.”

Within months of Tyson’s arrest, the state filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit to take title to his vehicle. But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportionate” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Tyson suffered from drug addiction, the court noted, but his only record of dealing was selling a small amount of drugs to undercover police. The court also noted the “financial burdens” that Tyson had already faced when he pleaded guilty. Taking his car on top of all that would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana Supreme Court said, “We will not impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review that 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’m thrilled the Supreme Court will be addressing this important issue,” said Tyson Timbs. “I committed a crime, then I did my time and cleaned up my life. But 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.

“Forfeiture is a controversial law enforcement tool. In states like Indiana, police and prosecutors can keep up to 100 percent of proceeds taken through forfeiture, proceeds they can then use for nicer offices and vehicles, and even for their own pay,” said IJ Attorney Sam Gedge. “This direct financial incentive gives the government a perverse incentive to abuse this power, which is exactly what is happening in Tyson’s case with this excessive fine. 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 “ 1 ity officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for . . . law enforcement activity.” The roughly 3,000 residents of nearby Pagedale—five miles south of Ferguson—have been heavily fined 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, local officials imposed crippling fines on low-income homeowners to force them to sell their land to a private developer.

“Justice Clarence Thomas recently declared that it was time for the Court to once again look at the constitutionality of civil forfeiture statutes,” said IJ Senior Attorney Darpana Sheth, who heads the Institute for Justice’s initiative to end forfeiture abuse. “Timbsprovides the Court its first opportunity to reexamine this doctrine in over 20 years. This case will hopefully be one in a series of cases that the Court takes on to fundamentally reconsider the constitutionality of civil forfeiture.”

“This case will make constitutional history,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “Governments increasingly use excessive fines and fees, including through the pernicious practice of civil forfeiture, to fund law enforcement agencies and to pad city budgets. This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one.This case has the potential to give meaningful protection to individuals in every state in the land from these abuses and to limit government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”

Oral argument in Tyson’s case is expected to be scheduled for this winter, with a decision to be issued next year.