In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the Constitution bars the use of “excessive fines” by states. This decision has the potential to dramatically change the way civil asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies across the country.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process wherein law enforcement may take an individual’s property, cash, vehicle, or any other asset if that asset is suspected of being used in a crime. In most states, it is relatively simple for police to take an individual’s property but hard for innocent owners to get their property back.
In addition, law enforcement often keeps the majority of the proceeds from forfeitures. In fact, forfeitures have become a vital source of revenue for many agencies, which use the money to fund their departments and buy equipment. Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue that the police are therefore incentivized to seize property. Property is often taken from poorer neighborhoods, groups less likely to be able to afford to pay for a lawyer to help them get their property back.
With little oversight on civil forfeiture, stories of disproportionate seizures are rife. In South Carolina, police attempted to seize the home of Ella Bromell, age 72. The reason? Drug dealers had been selling narcotics on her property. Police felt this gave them good enough reason to seize the dwelling even though Bromell had attempted to stop the illegal activity on several occasions.
In April last year, I reported on the case of Tyson Timbs, who was found guilty of selling $225 of heroin. The maximum fine possible against Timbs would have been $10,000, but law enforcement was able to circumvent this limit using civil asset forfeiture. In addition to assessing a fine of $1,200 in cash, they also seized Timbs’ car, which was worth $42,000.
Timbs is at peace with the cash fine he paid in addition to his sentence of one year of house arrest and five of probation. “I committed a crime,” he said. “I did my time and cleaned up my life.” The seizure of his vehicle, however, he felt was disproportionate.
Ultimately, Timbs took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, his lawyer arguing that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment meant the seizure of Timbs’ vehicle was unconstitutional. Until their decision, the Supreme Court had never ruled that the Excessive Fine Clause applied to states.
After hearing Timbs’ case in November of last year, the Supreme Court issued their 9-0 decision. According to the decision, Fourteenth Amendment is clear that the Excessive Fines Clause does indeed apply to states.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision on behalf of the other justices, saying, “The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates [i.e., that the Amendment applies at the state as well as the federal level] the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.”
While this decision will not end the practice of civil asset forfeiture, it will rein in heavy-handed use by law enforcement agencies. “People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime,” said Wesley Hottot of the libertarian Institute for Justice. “The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, ‘Whether I’m guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive.’”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.