On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case which could transform civil asset forfeiture in America. Groups from across the political spectrum presented briefs opposing civil asset forfeiture, asserting that civil forfeiture hurts business and is an affront to civil liberties.
Earlier this year, I reported on the case of Tyson Timbs. In 2013, he was arrested for selling four grams of heroin to an undercover police officer in Indiana. He was sentenced to five years of probation and a year of home arrest. Additionally, he paid legal fees in excess of $1,200 and attended a court-supervised drug treatment program.
Today, Timbs is clean and lives with his aunt. He has a job as a machinist 35 miles from his home. He drives to work using his aunt’s car because the state seized his own Land Rover when he was arrested. Without her own vehicle, Aunt Wendy travels to her dialysis treatments using public transport. More than five years later, Indiana still has possession of Timbs’ vehicle.
Law enforcement was able to take Timbs’ Land Rover using civil asset forfeiture, a legal procedure which allows police to seize an individual’s property when it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, it is not necessary to charge the individual with a crime before taking the property in question.
Timbs argues his vehicle was taken unfairly. His case rests on an argument over the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment prohibits “excessive punishments” to be “inflicted” for a crime. Timbs’ lawyers argue that the seizure of a $40,000 vehicle for the sale of $500 of heroin represents an excessive punishment.
The Indiana Supreme Court did not rule in Timbs’ favor; instead, the judges argued that the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment applied only to federal cases. As there had never been a ruling from a federal court arguing this clause also applied to states, the judges explained that, “we elect not to impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”
During the hearing today, members of the Supreme Court expressed surprise the excessive fines clause did not already apply to states. Justice Gorsuch asked the first question of Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, who was defending the status quo. “Can we at least agree,” asked Gorsuch, that the excessive fines clause applies to states?
Fisher explained that, no, it does not apply to states when the fine is levied against an asset or property.
“Really?” asked Gorsuch.
Justice Breyer wondered whether a state could seize a vehicle—for example, a “Bugatti, Mercedes, or a special Ferrari, or even jalopy”—if it was traveling five miles over the speed limit. Fisher said that it could.
Representing Timbs, Wesley Hottot of the libertarian Institute for Justice asked that the Supreme Court rule that the excessive fines clause apply to the states, as is the case with almost all of the Bill of Rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts sounded a note of caution, saying that Hottot’s suggestion could be akin to asking the Supreme Court to buy a “pig in a poke.” Roberts explained his position: “You say, don’t worry what it means. Just incorporate it [i.e., apply the excessive fines clause to the states] and then figure it out later on.”
If the Supreme Court rules that the excessive fines clause does apply to states, it will make it considerably more difficult for states to take possession of high-value property suspected of being involved in crime.
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.