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Law & the Courts

SCOTUS Cracks Down on Civil Asset Forfeiture

The U.S. Supreme Court stands in Washington, D.C., June 11, 2018. (Erin Schaff/Reuters)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that state and local governments are not exempt from the Constitutional prohibition against imposing “excessive fines” on citizens, significantly constraining the ability of law enforcement to seize the property of criminal suspects.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for eight of the nine justices, argued that state and local governments unconstrained by the Eighth Amendment’s excessive-fines clause are likely to abuse their power.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

The case in question concerned Tyson Timbs of Marion, Ind., who had his $42,000 Land Rover seized after pleading guilty to selling less than $1,000 of heroin. Tyson’s property was seized via civil asset forfeiture, which allows the authorities to confiscate property they suspect was used in criminal activity before a suspect is found guilty or even charged with a crime.

A trial court subsequently rejected the civil-forfeiture suit brought by the state, holding that the fine should be considered excessive because the vehicle was purchased for more than four times the maximum penalty of $10,000 that Timbs could be subjected to for selling heroin under state law.

The Indiana Supreme Court then reversed that decision on the grounds that the excessive-fines clause of the Constitution applied only to the federal government in a ruling that was vacated by the High Court on Wednesday.

Civil-liberties advocates celebrated the ruling as a reversal of a trend in which state and local governments increasingly rely on asset forfeiture to fund their operations.

“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees, and forfeitures to fund law-enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, said in a Wednesday statement. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one. We are grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court established that the U.S. Constitution secures meaningful protections for private property and limits the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”

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