Tyson Timbs, of Marion, IN, has been at the center of an asset forfeiture case for eight years now. His case is being heard by the Indiana Supreme Court this month, where state prosecutors are once more going to convince the court that the state should keep Timbs’ Land Rover SUV.
In 2013, he was arrested in Marion, IN, after he allegedly sold heroin to undercover officers. The accused pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of house arrest, five years of probation, and $1,200 in fines, which he paid. The state also used asset forfeiture to seize his Land Rover, which he had reportedly bought with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.
Asset forfeiture is a tool used by law enforcement agencies to take (and keep) cash, vehicles, and other property from alleged criminals, sometimes without requiring proof of the property owner’s guilt. The seized property is usually sold at auction, and a large chunk of the proceeds is absorbed into law enforcement budgets.
The defendant from Indiana filed a suit against the state and challenged the seizure, arguing that it violated the Eight Amendment’s ban against excessive fines. The trial court ruled in his favor, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the ruling, arguing the clause does not apply to states.
The case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in February 2019, unanimously ruled that the Eight Amendment clause also applies to state abuses. However, the ruling did not address how courts should determine when fines become unconstitutionally excessive, nor did it decide whether Indiana forfeiting the defendant’s vehicle violated his Eight Amendment Rights.
Since those questions were left for the lower courts to decide, Indiana’s high court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s argument and sent the defendant’s case back to Marion for a new trial. A trial judge once more ruled in his favor based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, and he finally had his Land Rover returned to him.
But the accused from Indiana’s story is still not over. Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill announced the state is once more appealing to the Indiana Supreme Court. On February 4, 2021, state prosecutors will appear before Indiana’s high court for the third time in four years to claim the power to use asset forfeiture to take his vehicle.
Whatever the outcome, the defendant’s case has highlighted the defects in Indiana’s forfeiture system and will likely pave the way for much-needed reform. Proponents of criminal justice reform expect the landmark ruling in Timbs v. Indiana to affect the use of asset forfeiture at local and state levels, where it helps pad police department budgets.
Anyone can become the victim of asset forfeiture, regardless of guilt. If a law enforcement agency has seized your lawful property, you should immediately consult an experienced attorney. The government gives forfeiture victims a limited amount of time to contest a seizure, so act fast before that window closes.
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