Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 8th Amendment’s protection from excessive fines is incorporated under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and thus applies to state and local actors. Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019). The most pervasive practice of excessive fines by state and local law enforcement is known as civil asset forfeiture, a procedure that allows state and local governments to deprive citizens of their property simply on the mere suspicion of criminal activity. This process has led to the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of private funds and property over the last two decades. By ruling that the 8th Amendment protection applies to the states, the Supreme Court has dealt a blow to the state system of policing for profit.
A Short History of Civil Asset Forfeiture
A civil forfeiture action is an in rem action, basically an action against the property itself. Modern day civil asset forfeiture has grown far beyond anything the 16th and 17th century law makers could have imagined. In its 2016 report, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, 2nd Edition”, the Institute for Justice reported that in 2014, the Department of Justice seized over $4.5 billion in assets from citizens. 83% of those assets were taken by civil asset forfeiture, where many of the people affected by it were not even charged with a crime. This is not only infecting the federal government, but state governments as well. “Policing for Profit” also detailed that in 2016, the City of Philadelphia’s “civil forfeiture machine” made more than $69 million in revenue for the district attorney’s office, via fines and seizures of private property. A 2014 investigation of Tennessee state police officers found that over 90% of suspected drug stops were occurring in the west-bound lanes of Interstate 40, where the police were much more likely to seize drug dealers with their large cash payouts and expensive cars rather than making stops in the east-bound lanes, where they would likely only find large amounts of illegal drugs.
Timbs v. Indiana
The case of Tyson Timbs is unfortunately all too familiar to those who have suffered from the system of civil asset forfeiture. Timbs pled guilty to dealing in a controlled substance in Indiana state court; he was sentenced to one year of house arrest and a subsequent five years’ probation. In total for his offense, Timbs was fined $1,203, with the maximum fine he could have incurred being $10,000. At the time of his arrest, the police had seized Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover SUV. Timbs had recently bought the vehicle using money from the life insurance policy he inherited from his father’s death.
Before Timbs’ plea, he moved to recover the vehicle from the police. Charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin, the State had initiated proceedings with a private law firm to secure the highly valuable vehicle under civil forfeiture. In a hearing held before Timbs’ entered his guilty plea, the trial court held that the State could not permanently confiscate Timbs’ vehicle as this would be “grossly disproportionate” to the crime Timbs’ had committed. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed the trial court’s ruling, but the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed, stating that the excessive fines constraints under the Eighth Amendment only applied against federal actors and thus did not apply to state action. Timb’s appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Justice Ginsburg addressed the question of incorporation by stating that under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and the theory of incorporation, the Bill of Rights allows “no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires.” Applying the history of the Excessive Fines Clause, as well as the logical case for incorporation, the Supreme Court unequivocally and unanimously ruled that the 8th Amendment protection against excessive fines encompassed state as well as federal actors. By applying the Excessive Fines Clause to the states, the Supreme Court ensured that the “exorbitant tolls” imposed by the states in civil forfeiture cases would not “undermine other constitutional liberties”, such as the freedom of speech, freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, etc.