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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Significant New Case About Civil Asset Forfeiture and the Bill of Rights

The justices will hear oral arguments next term in Timbs v. Indiana.

Joe Ravi / DreamstimeJoe Ravi / DreamstimeToday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a significant new case that raises important questions about the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment, criminal justice, and civil asset forfeiture.

The case is Timbs v. Indiana. It arose in 2013 when a man named Tyson Timbs was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to one year on home detention and five years on probation. A few months after his arrest, the state of Indiana also moved to seize Timbs' brand new Land Rover LR2, a vehicle worth around $40,000. A state trial court rejected that civil asset forfeiture effort, however, on the grounds that it would be "grossly disproportionate to the gravity of [Timbs'] offense" and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the imposition of "excessive fines."

The state's forfeiture effort clearly qualifies as excessive. Timbs' original crime carried a maximum financial penalty of just $10,000. And as the trial court observed, "a forfeiture of approximately four (4) times the maximum monetary fine is disproportional." The trial court was right to deem the state's actions unconstitutional.

But the Indiana Supreme Court took a different view when it decided the case in 2017. "We conclude the Excessive Fines Clause does not bar the State from forfeiting Defendant's vehicle because the United States Supreme Court has not held that the Clause applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment," that court said.

Timbs, represented by the libertarian lawyers at the Institute for Justice, then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines does indeed apply in all 50 states. That is the case that SCOTUS agreed to hear today.

This one should be a no-brainer. Since the late 19th century, the Supreme Court has been applying, or incorporating, the various provisions contained in the Bill of Rights against the states under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, which forbids state governments from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. The Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, for instance, is now a well-settled part of every state death penalty case that is litigated in both state and federal court. The Excessive Fines Clause is entitled to the same judicial respect.

This case also gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to consider the broader injustices that occur in the name of civil asset forfeiture. As Justice Clarence Thomas observed last year, "this system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses." By ruling in favor of Tyson Timbs, the justices can rein in at least some of this abuse.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Timbs v. Indiana sometime in its 2018-2019 term.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It arose in 2013 when a man named Tyson Timbs was arrested on drug charges...

    Groooooooooan. The justices aren't stupid. They know that every constitutional right has a Drug War Clause.

  • Citizen X||

    Sotomayor will be on board, at least.

  • Libertymike||

    Does anybody remember VP half-pence expressing his outrage at the time of his home state's supreme court decision?

  • Libertymike||

    Half / half - but I really don't know what, if any, reaction he had.

  • Libertymike||

    Selective incorporation is statist twaddle.

  • Enemy of the State||

    Statist Twaddle was my stage name...

  • Jerryskids||

    This one should be a no-brainer.

    First I'm going to have to know whether or not this Tyson Timbs fellow was an illegal immigrant and whether or not he's ever expressed an intemperate opinion toward Our Lord and Savior Donald J. Trump before I decide how to think about this.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    This one should be a no-brainer.

    Unfortunately, there are several no-brainers on the SCOTUS.

  • croaker||

    Damning with faint praise. It looks to me that there's only one brain and it gets passed around. Much like a certain offering from Cheapass Games.

    https://cheapass.com/give-me-the-brain/

  • ||

    This case also gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to consider the broader injustices that occur in the name of civil asset forfeiture.

    Not really. If it's being argued on Excessive Fines grounds, the odds of them looking at it from Due Process or 4th Amendment grounds are practically zero.

  • Citizen X||

    How else are they supposed to get any distance when they punt?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Distance isn't as important as hang time.

  • Citizen X||

    True, but they do want to get that motherfucker as far down the road as possible.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Dunno. This guy was actually convicted of a crime. Most people robbed by cops aren't even charged. If the court were to find that asset forfeiture is in fact a fine (hey, they found a penalty to be a tax) and not a creative civil action, as the trial judge apparently did,all of those people would have an immediate defense.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    But the Indiana Supreme Court took a different view when it decided the case in 2017. "We conclude the Excessive Fines Clause does not bar the State from forfeiting Defendant's vehicle because the United States Supreme Court has not held that the Clause applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment," that court said.

    Basically they are saying, the 14th amendment only applies when the SCOTUS specifically says it does. Unreal.

    "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, unless the Supreme Court hasn't told them no yet.. in which case, abridge away baby!"

  • Eidde||

    Perhaps the Indiana Supremes were trying to get the US Supremes' attention.

  • Eidde||

    "...Given the lack of clear direction from the Supreme Court, we have a couple of options. One option is to ignore McDonald and follow the lead of some courts that have either applied the Excessive Fines Clause to challenged state action or assumed without deciding that the Clause applies....

    "A second option is to await guidance from the Supreme Court and decline to find or assume incorporation until the Supreme Court decides the issue authoritatively. We choose this latter, more cautious approach for two reasons. First, although the Supreme Court has addressed this issue only in dicta, its statement in McDonald that the Clause has not been incorporated is entitled to more weight because it is the Court's most recent. Second, Indiana is a sovereign state within our federal system, and we elect not to impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated. An important corollary is that Indiana has its own system of legal, including constitutional, protections for its citizens and other persons within its jurisdiction. Absent a definitive holding from the Supreme Court, we decline to subject Indiana to a *federal* test that may operate to impede development of our own excessive-fines jurisprudence under the Indiana Constitution."

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    That's my guess. Too blatant a hint to be much else.

  • Jerryskids||

    No, the Indiana Supremes are just the ultimate statist dickheads.

    "We believe ... a right to resist an unlawful police entry into a home is against public policy and is incompatible with modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence," David said. "We also find that allowing resistance unnecessarily escalates the level of violence and therefore the risk of injuries to all parties involved without preventing the arrest."

    And when the Indiana legislature immediately moved to overturn the ruling by passing a law declaring that you do in fact have the right to resist an illegal entry into your home even against an armed intruder (or the King of England as the nobles declared in 1215) they were accused of declaring open season on cops.

  • Jerryskids||

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    The problem is, how could the homeowner possibly know whether the entry is illegal or not in the few seconds in which they have to make the decision to resist or not?

  • Yellow Tony||

    Here's a simple example:

    Part I
    An cop and his buddies stroll up to a house and aggressively knock on the door. The door opens revealing an albino man.
    "May I help you?"
    "I'm here to inspect your house. We have suspicions that you might be trying turn ferrets into girls by repeatedly inserting your penis into them."
    "That's absurd!" The extremely white man responded with a passion that nearly made him guilty, at least from the keen perception of this warrior of justice. "What assholes said this, and do you even have a warrant?!"
    Our intrepid police officer shook his head, and he displayed his documentation that entitled him and his cohorts to fuck this ferret-fucker's house up.
    The man with the alabaster countenance widened his eyes and curled his lips down to reveal a face of pure consternation and disgust.

  • Yellow Tony||

    Part II
    "That's, uh, a sanitary napkin, officer."
    "No, it's not you freak!"
    "Dude, it has stains on it! What the fuck is wrong with you!?"
    "What the fuck is wrong with you, you degenerate animal fucker!? The judge was in a hurry so I had to use my ex-wife's nappy to use as a medium to convey his approval! What do you have against Ira, you aborted fetus!? WHAT!?"
    The unabashed, serious, and stentorian response by this veritable Dan Eagleman further disconcerted the alleged ferret-fucker. He thus promptly threw the door in our glorious officer's face and raced to grab his .38 pistol. But unfortunately it was too late: the good guys broke threw every opening into the house. Some of the officers even made new holes as if they were deviant rapists not satisfied with the vagina, asshole, ear-holes, bellybutton, armpits, back-of-the-knees, and eyes of their victim. Yes, it's a bad day to be an albino living in Indiana.

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    The incorporation doctrine is actually based on a different clause of the 14th amendment, the Due Process clause, not the Privileges and Immunities clause.

  • Eidde||

    Sure, the way the Supreme Court does it.

    Justice Thomas pointed to the P & I clause as the more appropriate vehicle. Nothing to stop the other justices from joining him. Not that they will.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    He should have also raised a 5th Amendment claim as the government cannot take his property without just compensation. In other words, a $40,000 Land Rover seized by the government would require $40,000 in just compensation by the government.

    Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    Presumably the state is claiming the Land Rover was used in the commission of the crime, and thus is itself the defendant. Not being a person, it has no fifth amendment rights.

  • Libertarian bob||

    "Nor be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation"
    The Land Rover is titled in the mans name as his personal property! Therefore he is being both deprived of property without due process of law, and having property seized without just compensation! You can paint whatever lipstick you want on the pig, but it's still a pig!
    It would seem to me that if you cannot be confident in the clear, and concise verbiage of the supreme law of the land, then we indeed no longer have a constitutional republic, nor a constitution and bill of rights to govern us. If that's the case, let it be declared, so the citizens can mount a militia and root out the tyranny!
    When a judicial body renders a verdict that the color blue is indeed red, then we have a perversion of justice! It is not the SCOTUS responsibility to make law! That belongs to congress, and as corrupt as congress is, the establishment elite have not yet been able to bribe and blackmail enough lawmakers to be able to rip our constitution apart, and overthrow our republic.
    We need to stop buying into the notion that the Supreme Court is responsible for making law, by way of manipulating the meaning of the very clearly written Declaration of Independence!

  • Shoreline1||

    In the land of the free, our government spends greatly on prosecuting the citizenry. Considering our defense budget (yeah, it's for defense), our government spends little defending the rights of the citizenry. We are compelled to believe that "defense" spending is not to protect the citizenry, but to protect the power of our government. Does any citizen believe that our government will not incarcerate you, or commit violence upon you, if you do not do what they tell you to do?

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    IJ!
    IJ!
    IJ!

  • nicmart||

    And yet Indiana did not invoke forfeiture when the owner of the Indianapolis Colts was arrested for driving while fucked up with 29,000 in cash and a small pharmacy.
    https://goo.gl/iyGbBB

  • Eidde||

    Be glad he was arrested at all.

    Peasant.

  • LifeStrategies||

    So who does the Eighth Amendment apply to? If it doesn't apply in Indiana, this could also suggest it doesn't apply in any other state...

    The court needs to state that asset forfeiture proceeds always go into general coffers, thereby removing the incentive for such outrageous theft.

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