“The excessive fines clause traces its venerable lineage to at least 1215.”
— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“[T]here can be no serious doubt that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the States to respect the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the Eighth Amendment.”
— Justice Neil Gorsuch
Ernesto Miranda. Oliver Brown. Clarence Earl Gideon. Mildred & Richard Loving. They were not legal scholars or jurists, law professors or elected representatives. But they have each been immortalized in the annals of legal history by being the named plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case. And they were joined on Wednesday by a self-described “junkie” from Marion, Indiana, named Tyson Timbs.
Timbs was a drug addict who, it appeared, had cleaned up his act by the summer of 2012. His father passed away that year, and Timbs, then 31 years old, used a portion of the money he inherited from his father’s estate to purchase a Land Rover. Whether it was simply the power of his addiction, the grief over his father’s passing, or falling back into old habits, Timbs again began to use drugs.
In November of 2013, in an effort to get money to support his use, Timbs sold $260 worth of heroin to an undercover officer. He was charged and convicted of a felony drug trafficking offense. He received the kinds of penalties one would expect, including a fine, community service, suspended jail time, and mandatory drug treatment. In addition to those penalties, the State of Indiana made the decision to use civil asset forfeiture statutes to go after Timbs’ Land Rover.
In most states, civil asset forfeiture is an action brought by or on behalf of a prosecutor or law enforcement agency in an attempt to seize property that was used in the commission of a crime or acquired as a result of criminal activity. The property can be seized through a civil lawsuit and turned over to the law enforcement agency or prosecutor. Often, the property is sold and the proceeds used to fund future law enforcement efforts. Indiana’s law was unique in that it allowed these actions to be farmed out to private law firms that would be paid a percentage of the value of the property seized.
In recent years, the practice has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum. On one side came complaints that forfeitures like the one in Timbs’ case were unfair and unconnected to the underlying crime, and that they left the defendant without a means to rehabilitate themselves. From the other side came complaints that the practice was an abuse of government power.
Timbs completed his terms and got clean. But he found it hard to get to NA meetings and to hold a job without reliable transportation. Attorneys sued on his behalf claiming that the seizure of his truck violated his Constitutional rights.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is best known for its “cruel and unusual punishments” clause, but it also prohibits “excessive fines.” When written, the federal Constitution only applied to the federal government. It was only by means of the 14th Amendment that the Supreme Court began to apply the other provisions of the Constitution to the states, one by one, through a process called “incorporation.” But the 8th Amendment’s “excessive fines” clause had not — until Wednesday — been incorporated. By means of a unanimous decision, the High Court used Timbs’ case to incorporate the Eighth Amendment’s “excessive fines” clause to the states.
The maximum fine for Timbs’ offense was $10,000. The truck was worth $42,000. That, the Court said, made the forfeiture “grossly disproportionate” to the severity of the offense. Drawing on legal history dating back to the Magna Carta, and to a prior federal case dealing with civil forfeitures in federal crimes, the court ordered that the seizure of Timbs’ truck violated his Constitutional rights.
As with most landmark cases, the devil is in the details, and future cases will establish where the boundaries are. How big a forfeiture is “excessive”? How closely does the property need to be related to the crime? If Indiana simply raised its maximum fine for drug trafficking to $100,000, would this forfeiture pass Constitutional muster? Later cases will answer those questions. But for now, Tyson Timbs has guaranteed that generations of law students will know his name.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.