A U.S. Supreme Court Ruling to Watch Out For

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
a u s supreme court ruling to watch out for

Will the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause soon keep you safe from sticky-fingered state governments or local law enforcement? Right now, it doesn’t, but one man’s desire to get his hands on a seized SUV might change that.

If it rules in favor of an Indiana man seeking the return of his 2012 Land Rover LR2, the U.S. Supreme Court will extend this section of the amendment to the state level. Civil asset forfeiture could cease being as serious an issue as it is today.

First off, a hat tip to Chris Tonn, who, after peering through a crack in his venetian blinds, sent this Reason article my way. It details an upcoming ruling in the case of Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 vs. State of Indiana.

For a concise synopsis of Timbs’ legal quest, check out this piece in the Indianapolis Star. Basically, Timbs, a former drug user who became hooked after his pain medication ran out, sold $260 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. He pleaded guilty five years ago and served his sentence. Under Indiana law, Timbs’ crime warranted a fine of $10,000, yet police seized his 2012 LR2, bought with inheritance money, following his arrest.

The value of the SUV? $42,000. The cops say the vehicle was used in the commission of a crime (he was driving it at the time of his arrest), thus making it fair game for seizure, regardless of his crime’s maximum fine.

With his crime and its punishment in the rear-view, Timbs eventually sought the return of his Land Rover, taking his case to the Indiana Supreme Court. The court did not see eye to eye with Timbs, ruling that the protection against excessive fines spelled out in the Eighth Amendment doesn’t apply to states.

Undeterred, Timbs took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court where, during oral arguments in November, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher argued there is “effectively no seizure under asset forfeiture laws that would qualify as excessive,” Reason reports. That constitutionality would even cover the seizure of a car whose driver was nabbed driving 5 mph over the limit, he argued.

Timbs was not without his backers, though. In supporting Timbs, the Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. stated, “Unfortunately, and with increasing frequency, state and local legislatures are authorizing — and executive officials are seeking — excessive fines and forfeitures for relatively modest violations of the law by businesses and individuals.”

A coalition of mayors and Indiana state representatives argued Timbs did not commit a modest offence, and thus did not deserve leniency. Nor did they believe the seizure of an individual’s property counted as a “fine.”

With a ruling in the case looming, many anticipate new protections at the local and state level.

From Reason:

At least one lawsuit has already been filed in anticipation of the forthcoming ruling. In December, Detroit resident Crystal Sisson filed a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit challenging the aggressive asset forfeiture program in Wayne County, Michigan.

Sheriff’s deputies pulled over Sisson after they surveilled her entering a Detroit medical marijuana dispensary. After allegedly finding her with $10 worth of pot and discovering that she did not have a medical marijuana card, the deputies issued her a criminal citation and seized her 2015 Kia Soul.

Sisson had to pay the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office $1,200 to avoid having her car forfeited; her suit now argues that the forfeiture and the fine were excessive under the Eighth Amendment. Whether the Supreme Court will also define what constitutes an “excessive” fine remains to be seen.

[Image: ©2017 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

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  • Charliej Charliej on Feb 13, 2019

    Corruption runs deep and wide in the US. Is it any wonder that increasing numbers of citizens are choosing to live outside the US so as to be away from the corruption. Corrupt cops and prosecutors can railroad anyone into jail and seize their property. I would like to see cops and prosecutors be liable for their crimes and have to serve time like the people they screw over.

  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Feb 14, 2019

    I'm going to need a scorecard to see which amendments apply to states and which don't. Abortion and Gay marriage, which I believe are quantified under the 14th do (relax, I'm not taking a side, just pointing out that the court has in fact told states they can't muck with those). The Second Amendment is a mixed bag though I think some clarity is forthcoming. Honestly I don't know why this is an issue...the government shouldn't be able to take your stuff. All the "what if" is silly. If it is that serious charge them and if found guilty, incarcerate them. That costs money though. I'm cool with that, it should be a serious thing to take someone's freedom.

    • TMA1 TMA1 on Feb 14, 2019

      And don't forget, some amendments only apply to certain states, but not others. The 3rd Amendment, for example, is held against states withing the Second Circuit. But given that the Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue, it's still up in the air everywhere else.

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