Indiana Supreme Court Ruled the State May Impose Excessive Fines Until the U.S. Supreme Court Says It Can’t
Arlington, Va.—The U.S. Constitution sets a floor of rights that each American is supposed to enjoy as a citizen of this nation. But the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled that the federal Constitution’s ban on excessive fines does not and will not apply to the Hoosier State unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Indiana must adhere to this national standard of civil rights.
The case at the heart of this important constitutional debate deals with Tyson Timbs, 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—a vehicle that was seized from him after he was convicted of selling less than $200 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.”
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are scheduled to hold a conference on June 7, during which they will consider whether to accept and review the Timbs case.
“This case is about more than just a truck,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice (“IJ”). “The Eighth Amendment’s 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.”
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 of the U.S. Constitution. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with that conclusion, noting that Tyson had sold only four grams of heroin valued at less than $200 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 Excessive Fines Clause in imposing fines or forfeitures because, in the court’s view, the Clause has never been “incorporated” against the states, as has virtually every other protection in the Bill of Rights.
“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.”
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 forfeiture like “Weapons of Mass Destruction” against low-level criminal offenders, financially vulnerable property owners and even innocent people.
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 “1ity officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for . . . law enforcement activity.”
In Charlestown, Indiana, in another IJ case, local officials imposed crippling fines on low-income homeowners to force them to sell their land to a private developer.
In Pagedale, Missouri—five miles south of Ferguson, in yet 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. Earlier this week, the city entered into a consent decree which finally ended this practice of policing for profit.
“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.”
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call Justin Wilson, IJ’s senior director of communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 206. More information is available at https://ij.org/case/indiana-forfeiture-petition/.]