Arlington, Va.—In a path-marking ruling, today the Indiana Supreme Court announced that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause secures meaningful protections against exorbitant fines and forfeitures. The case of State of Indiana v. Tyson Timbs was back before the court after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tyson Timbs’s favor in February on the question whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies at all to the states.
As part of its ruling in February, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court and tasked it with determining when a fine or forfeiture is unconstitutionally “excessive” under the Eighth Amendment. Today, the court rejected the state prosecutors’ view that any property used in a crime is subject to being taken by the government. Instead, the court held, the property owner’s culpability, the extent of their misconduct, and their financial circumstances must all factor into the Eighth Amendment inquiry.
“[T]he owner’s economic means,” the court reasoned, “is an appropriate consideration” for determining whether a fine or forfeiture is constitutionally excessive. “To hold the opposite would generate a new fiction: that taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally.”
The four-justice majority also emphasized that “the way Indiana carries out civil forfeitures is both concerning and symptomatic of a shift in in rem forfeiture law and practice,” before sending the case back to the trial court to apply the new standard to the facts of Tyson Timbs’s case. In 2015, the trial court in Grant County had ruled that forfeiting Tyson’s vehicle was excessive and that the property should be returned.
“The Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized that the Excessive Fines Clause is a vital protection against unjust economic sanctions,” said Sam Gedge, an Institute for Justice (IJ) attorney who represents Tyson. “Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights today, and the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling marks an important step in curbing the worst abuses in this area. We look forward to enforcing the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in the trial court and getting Tyson’s property back.”
Tyson said, “Today’s ruling is important not just for me, but for thousands of people who are caught up in Indiana’s forfeiture machine. To me it doesn’t make 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? 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.”
Tyson Timbs’s road to the U.S. and Indiana supreme courts began shortly after his father died, leaving him more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds. 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 of 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 $40,000 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 Land Rover.
In 2015, the trial court that ruled the police should return Tyson’s vehicle because forfeiting it would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense and therefore unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with that conclusion, noting that Tyson had sold only four grams of heroin, all to undercover officers. Initially, however, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, holding that state and local authorities did not need to comply with the Eighth Amendment at all when they impose fines and forfeitures. That decision was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.
“Tyson paid his debts to society,” said Wesley Hottot, an IJ senior attorney who argued on Tyson’s behalf at the U.S. Supreme Court. “He took responsibility for what he did. He paid fees. He is in drug treatment. He is holding down a job. He is staying clean. Our hope and goal now is to finally get back his vehicle from the police so Tyson will have an easier time getting to all the different commitments he has to stay on the straight and narrow.”