States Can't Impose Excessive Fines, High Court Rules

By RJ Vogt | February 20, 2019, 8:47 PM EST

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the constitutional bar on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, unanimously siding with a convicted drug dealer in his fight to reclaim a $42,000 Land Rover the state of Indiana had seized via civil forfeiture.

The majority opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her first since cancer surgery in December, detailed how the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is rooted in a legal tradition that dates back to the Magna Carta. Like other aspects of the Bill of Rights, the court incorporated the clause against the states because it is “fundamental to our scheme of liberty.”

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

According to advocates, the ruling is a blockbuster, if expected, development in the nationwide struggle against the increasing use of fines, fees and forfeitures as a way to fund the justice system. In 2017, the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund took in about $1.6 billion in gross forfeiture revenue, including both cash and proceeds from the sale of seized cars and other property, according to a U.S. Department of Justice inspector general audit. That's down from $1.9 billion in 2016, the report said.

At the state level, civil forfeiture has also boomed, according to a study done by the Institute for Justice. All states allow some type of forfeiture, and for the 14 states the institute looked at, forfeiture revenue more than doubled between 2002 and 2013.

The Institute of Justice’s Wesley Hottot, who represents petitioner Tyson Timbs, told Law360 on Wednesday that while the clause has long been understood to apply to state proceedings, a high court opinion like this one will help plaintiffs attorneys going forward.

“When the Supreme Court speaks about something like the importance of the excessive fines defense, it makes a difference to judges across the country,” Hottot said. “They see this is something the court is concerned about. I think that lawyers should be raising this defense more. We now know that the excessive fines clause is very much alive.”

Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of the The American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said in a statement that the ACLU is “thrilled” about the ruling, which quoted the organization’s amicus brief in noting that “state and local governments nationwide increasingly depend heavily on fines and fees as a source of general revenue.”

“We’ve seen this dramatic explosion of governments relying on courts and traffic tickets and forfeitures,” she told Law360, noting that people of color are disproportionately affected by the practice. “Today’s ruling is a unanimous statement that what has been happening is out of control.”

The case began in 2015, when Timbs pled guilty to drug and theft-related charges after being arrested for selling $400 worth of heroin out of his car. The court sentenced him to one year of home detention plus five years of probation and also ordered him to pay more than $1,200 in costs and fees.

Because Timbs' Land Rover was used in the crime, the state of Indiana also sought to seize the $42,000 vehicle via civil forfeiture. Though a trial judge denied the bid on the grounds that it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying the U.S. Supreme Court had not expressly applied the excessive fines clause to the states.

Timbs turned to the high court, which agreed in June to hear the case. At oral arguments in November, Justice Neil Gorsuch interrupted the Indiana solicitor general’s opening statement to "get one thing off the table."

"We all agree that the excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states," he said, answering the official question presented by the case.

Wednesday’s opinion made good on that quip, but did not dig into how excessiveness should be determined. Larry Rosenthal, an attorney who wrote a State and Local Legal Center amicus brief supporting Indiana that was joined by the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities, among others, said he expects “an avalanche of litigation.”

“We certainly thought the forfeiture at issue in the Timbs case was entirely appropriate,” he said, noting the Land Rover in question was used to transport heroin. “But because the court’s opinion decides only a very abstract question, it offered very little guidance to the litigation to follow. We’ve kind of opened a Pandora’s box.”

In a statement, Indiana Attorney General Curtis T. Hill said his office appreciates “the Court’s attention to the important issues raised in this case."

“Although we argued for a different outcome, we respect the Court’s decision,” he said.

Not all the justices agreed completely with Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion. Justice Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion that argued the “appropriate vehicle for incorporation may well be the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause,” rather than the Due Process clause. He added, however, that “regardless of the precise vehicle, there can be no serious doubt” that the states are required to respect the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause.

Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion that differed on the question of due process: he said the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Timbs is represented by Wesley Hottot of the Institute of Justice.

Indiana is represented by state attorney general Curtis T. Hill and state solicitor general Thomas M. Fisher.

The case is Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 v. State of Indiana, number 17-1091 in the Supreme Court of the United States.

— Additional reporting by Diana Novak Jones. Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.