Arlington, Va.—Indiana man Tyson Timbs’s fight against civil forfeiture made national news in February 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies not just to the federal government, but to the states as well. That decision established a rule of law for Americans nationwide. But it didn’t get Tyson his car back. The U.S. Supreme Court sent his case back to the Indiana Supreme Court. That court, in turn, sent the case back to the trial court, with instructions to decide anew whether taking Tyson’s vehicle was unconstitutionally excessive. The trial court ruled for Tyson last April. The State appealed yet again—bringing Tyson’s case before the Indiana Supreme Court for a third time. And this morning a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court ruled unequivocally in Tyson’s favor.
“Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick,” the court observed, “this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again.” And after eight years of litigation, the court held that “Timbs met his high burden to show that the harshness of his Land Rover’s forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse.” The forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause, the court concluded.
“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. “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 probation officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? I hope that, finally, the government will move on and let me move on too.”
“Today’s ruling is an important victory for property rights across Indiana,” said Sam Gedge, an Institute for Justice (IJ) attorney who represents Tyson. “As the Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized, Indiana’s campaign to take Tyson’s car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail. The State of Indiana has spent nearly a decade trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict. No one should have to spend eight years fighting the government just to get back their car.”
Tyson’s legal odyssey began shortly after his father died, leaving him more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds. In January 2013, 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 led him to get his life back on track.
But the state of Indiana was more interested in Tyson’s car. Within months of Tyson’s arrest, private contingency-fee lawyers filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit on behalf of the state to take title to his $35,000 Land Rover. The government has been prosecuting the case ever since. “[T]he seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end,” the Indiana Supreme Court’s opinion concluded today.
“Today’s ruling brings to a close Indiana’s crusade to confiscate one man’s car,” said Wesley Hottot, an IJ senior attorney who argued on Tyson’s behalf at the U.S. Supreme Court. “Tyson’s case went through every level of the American judicial system—in some instances, three times. The State’s relentless use of its forfeiture machine has been a deeply unjust exercise of power, and it underscores that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.”