SUPREME COURT DEALS A BODY BLOW TO “POLICING FOR PROFIT”

By: Benjamin D. Allen

After his father died, Tyson Timbs used proceeds from an insurance policy to purchase a Land Rover SUV for $42,000.  Sometime after he purchased the vehicle, police arrested Timbs for dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft.  After pleading guilty to these offenses, an Indiana state court sentenced him to one year of home detention and five years of probation.  In addition, the court required him to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203.

Suspecting he used his SUV to transport heroin, the police seized Timbs’s vehicle at the time of his arrest.  Since Indiana law permitted the forfeiture of any vehicles used to facilitate the violation of a criminal statute, the State engaged a private law firm to file a lawsuit against Timbs to forfeit the vehicle.  While the trial court agreed with the police that Timbs had used his vehicle to transport heroin, it refused to enter an order granting the forfeiture, finding that the vehicle’s purchase price was more than four times the maximum fine it could assess against him for his drug conviction.  This, the trial court concluded, was unconstitutional pursuant to the Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting excessive fines. The Indiana Supreme Court, however, disagreed, and held that the Excessive Fines Clause only applied to federal actions.

In Timbs v. Indiana, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision and unanimously held that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states.  Justice Ginsburg authored a succinct and fascinating majority opinion discussing the clause’s origins in the Magna Carta and its subsequent development over the following centuries.  In the opinion, the Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause was “fundamental and deeply rooted” and thus incorporated to apply against the states pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Since the issue was not before it on appeal, the Court did not consider whether the actual punishment, i.e. the forfeiture, was itself excessive.  Although Indiana attempted to argue that the Eighth Amendment did not apply to civil in rem forfeitures, the Court found that the State had not properly raised the issue before the Court and went further to recognize existing precedent that it did.

It is not unusual for individuals convicted of criminal offenses to face forfeiture of certain property used to commit the offense.  However, state and local governments who face increasing pressure to generate revenue in light of continuously shrinking budgets are, with increasing frequency, abusing their civil forfeiture authority to generate the missing revenue.  The Court’s decision in Timbs will no doubt constrain their ability to continue to do so.  Individuals facing civil forfeiture by state and local governments should cite Timbs to protect their rights against excessive fines.

For over fifty years, Gess Mattingly & Atchison, P.S.C. has represented individuals in both state and federal courts who face prosecution.  Do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Gess Mattingly & Atchison, P.S.C. at 859-252-9000 if you need representation.

Share this post: