U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Excessive Fines & Property SeizuresOn Wednesday, February 20, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that states cannot impose excessive fees, fines, or forfeitures as criminal penalties. This decision clarifies that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines, applies to states as well as the federal government.

The ability of authorities to seize private property used in a crime – civil asset forfeiture – has become a revenue source for states, as well as a way to punish alleged criminals, sometimes without a hearing.

Out of the 26 states and District of Columbia that report forfeitures, law enforcement agencies collected more than $254 million in funds and property in 2012 alone.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote and announced the opinion, reading, “The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty, with deep roots in our history and tradition.”

The case that started it all

The case at hand involved a man named Tyson Timbs versus the state of Indiana over the seizure of his Land Rover. Timbs’ case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, ending in a victory for Timbs and critics of what some call “policing for profit.”

Back in 2013, Timbs sold less than $400 of heroin to undercover Indiana police officers. Upon his conviction, the state seized his Land Rover – which he had purchased using proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy – under a state law allowing seizure of vehicles used to “facilitate violation of a criminal statute.” However, the value of the Land Rover was four times what the state allows as the maximum monetary penalty for Timbs’ crime.

Now, the state must reconsider that decision.

Why this decision is important

The practice of excessive fines and property seizures can put people who are already struggling into an even worse situation.

The state of Indiana had argued that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause shouldn’t apply to forfeitures or actions targeting property because of its role in criminal activity. Their argument was because Timbs used the Land Rover to purchase drugs, the vehicle was a criminal tool.

Although lower courts agreed, they also noted that the seizure of his vehicle was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his crime.

“Taking my vehicle makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles. To me it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” Timbs said in a statement after the Supreme Court decision.

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