A case of civil asset forfeiture involving a Hoosier’s seized Land Rover may end up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket. If they agree to hear the case, it could transform the approach of law enforcement to civil asset forfeiture across the nation.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process where law enforcement can seize property suspected of being involved in a crime. It is legal in most states, and few states require a criminal conviction for the property to be seized. Proceeds from the profits of civil asset forfeiture are often used to fund law enforcement, leading to accusations of policing for profit.
The case which may be heard by the Supreme Court involves Tyson Timbs. After he was injured at work, he was prescribed the opioid, hydrocodone. He later became addicted to opioids and began to buy pills on the black market. He later turned to heroin.
In 2013, undercover officers arrested Timbs when he sold them four grams of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of home detention and five years of probation. He attended a drug treatment program supervised by the court and paid court fees and costs totaling over $1,200.
“I committed a crime, then I did my time and cleaned up my life,” said Timbs.
The state also seized Timbs’ Land Rover. When his father had died, Timbs received $73,000 in proceeds from his life-insurance policy. He used $41,000 of that money to buy himself the car. Timbs’ vehicle was seized because he used his car when buying heroin for his own use.
“With [civil asset] forfeiture, they are trying to take away one of the few things I own, that I bought with money from my dad. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and become contributing members of society,” explained Timbs.
While cases involving disputes over civil asset forfeiture are common, this case is unique in the legal argument it is based on. Timbs’ lawyers argue that the Eighth Amendment, which bans excessive fines, should shield Timbs’ Land Rover from seizure by the state.
As Indiana law only allows for a $10,000 fine for Timbs’ crime, the court in Indiana initially agreed that seizing a car worth over $40,000 was “grossly disproportionate.” This decision was upheld in an appeal.
However, the Indiana Supreme Court later approved the seizure. The judges issued an opinion saying that, as the Excessive Fine Clause of the Eighth Amendment had not been applied to states before, it did not need to be applied here.
“Indiana is a sovereign state within our federal system,” explained the judges in their unanimous opinion. “We elect not to impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”
In January, Timbs petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. When it was first written, the Bill of Rights applied only to federal powers over Americans. Over the years, a process of “selective incorporation” has seen those federal rights gradually be applied to the states as well.
The most recent incorporation came in 2010 when the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms was applied to the states. In the majority opinion issued by Justice Alito, he noted that the ban on peacetime quartering of troops in private homes and the prohibition of excessive fines were the only two remaining sections of the Bill of Rights the Supreme Court had yet to issue a decision on.
If the U.S. Supreme Court elects to hear the case, it would be an opportunity for limits to be set on law enforcement’s use of civil asset forfeiture. It could give Timothy Timbs and thousands of Americans like him—either people trying to rebuild their lives after making mistakes, or people who have had their property seized unjustly—the chance for relief.
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.