Supreme Court Rules Unanimously to Limit Civil Forfeiture Laws
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday to limit civil forfeiture laws that give state and local law enforcement the ability to seize property involved in crimes.
The move was made in a ruling that states the Eighth Amendment, which bars “excessive fines” on the federal level, also applies to state and local governments.
The case was brought to the courts by Tyson Timbs, who plead guilty to selling a couple hundred dollars worth of heroin in 2013. Timbs was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation, plus $1,200 in fees and fines.
The police had also seized his $42,000 Land Rover, which Timbs was driving when he was arrested. Timbs argued that the loss of his car was excessive considering the maximum fine he could face was $10,000.
In an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recently returned from undergoing surgery related to lung cancer, the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on excessive fines applies to states under the 14th Amendment. The Court had previously ruled that excessive fines can include property seizure, according to the New York Times.
“The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is indeed overwhelming,” wrote Gingsburg.
“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties,” she stated. “They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue.”
Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the advocacy group Institute for Justice who represented Timbs, told Bloomberg that the ruling “should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’—where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property then sell it, and keep the profits to fund their departments.”
The Supreme Court did not specify if the seizure of Timbs’ Land Rover could qualify as an excessive fine, leaving this decision to the lower courts of Indiana.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch agreed with the court’s decision but wrote in concurring opinions that they would have referred to a different part of the 14th Amendment, the Washington Post reports.