Property Rights

Indiana Returns Land Rover Seized in Landmark Asset Forfeiture Case—But Continues the Legal Battle Over its Ultimate Fate

In Timbs v. Indiana, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to state asset forfeiture seizures. But key issues were left for lower courts to resolve.

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After a seven-year legal battle that resulted in a decision by the US Supreme Court and two (so far) by the Indiana State Supreme Court, the state of Indiana has finally returned a $40,000 land rover owned by Tyson Timbs, which had been seized through the asset forfeiture process. Reason's C.J. Ciaramella summarizes:

It's been almost seven years to the day since the state of Indiana seized resident Tyson Timbs' Land Rover for a drug crime, launching a legal odyssey that would take Timbs all the way to the Supreme Court and lead to a landmark ruling on civil asset forfeiture.

On Tuesday, Timbs arrived home to find that same Land Rover back in his driveway.

Although the Indiana Attorney General is still appealing Timbs' case at the Indiana Supreme Court—the third time the court has been asked to consider the tangled case of Timbs' SUV—his car has been returned for the moment, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that represents Timbs and has challenged forfeiture laws in several states….

Timbs pleaded guilty in 2015 to selling heroin to undercover police officers and was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation. But Indiana also used a practice known as civil asset forfeiture to seize his $42,000 Land Rover, which Timbs purchased with money from his late father's life insurance payout, not the proceeds of drug sales….

Timbs challenged the seizure, arguing that taking his vehicle, which was worth four times the maximum fine for the crime he committed, amounted to an unconstitutionally excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected that argument on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court had never explicitly ruled that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states—a doctrine known as "incorporation."

Last February, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment and its protections against excessive fines and fees applied to states….

The Supreme Court, however, did not rule on what constituted an "excessive" fine. It kicked that question back to the Indiana Supreme Court, which created a three-prong test last October to determine when a government fine or seizure is disproportionate to the alleged offense. The Indiana Supreme Court in turn sent Timbs' case back to a state trial court to be reconsidered.

In April, an Indiana judge ruled that, under the new test, the seizure of Timbs' Land Rover—"a tool essential to maintaining employment, obtaining treatment, and reducing the likelihood that he would ever again commit another criminal offense"—was unconstitutionally excessive and ordered the vehicle returned.

I analyzed the federal Supreme Court decision here, and the most recent Indiana state supreme court decision here. Abusive forfeitures are a widespread problem that often victimizes innocent people and particularly harms the poor.  In some years, federal law enforcement alone seizes more property through asset forfeiture than burglars steal throughout the nation.  I described the problems caused by asset forfeiture abuse in greater detail in testimony before the Arkansas State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, last year.

As explained in my post on the most recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling in the Timbs case, there has recently been important progress in curbing asset forfeiture abuse, to which the Timbs litigation has contributed. But much also remains to be done in this field. Among other things, the federal government should repeal the Trump administration's 2017 revival of the federal "equitable sharing" program, under which state and local asset forfeitures are "adopted" by the federal government.  The feds then share the proceeds with state and local law enforcement agencies—even in cases where state law otherwise bars the latter from profiting from the seized assets.

Meanwhile, the state of Indiana seems bent on continuing what I have called its Inspector Javert-like battle to keep possession of Timbs' vehicle. Fortunately, I think it is clear that the trial court was right to conclude that the state supreme court's standards for what qualifies as an "excessive" fine easily cover this case.

But the fact that this case has dragged on for so long is an indication of how hard it can be for owners to recover their property once it has disappeared into the maws of the asset forfeiture system. Law enforcement is loathe to disgorge its ill-gotten gains. And, unlike Timbs, most owners do not have the benefit of excellent pro bono representation from the Institute for Justice, one of the nation's leading public interest law firms. In many situations, the cost of using the legal system to recovery seized property is greater than the value of property itself. So owners have little choice but to give up, even if they are entirely in the right.

NOTE: Tyson Timbs is represented by the Institute for Justice, a prominent public interest law firm, with which I have longstanding connections, and for which I have done pro bono work on other property rights cases. I did not, however, have any involvement in this particular case. IJ has posted a statement about the return of Timbs' car here.

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  1. ” the state of Indiana has finally returned a $40,000 land rover”

    NO!

    It WAS a $40,000 land rover seven years ago but I doubt that it is worth a fifth of that today. I don’t have a current Blue Book on me, and they are regional anyway, but any small-bank loan officer will have one and if you know the options and such of that particular vehicle, can give you a precise value for it.

    “Timbs arrived home to find that same Land Rover back in his driveway.”

    And I’d leave it there — I wouldn’t dare drive it. Not after 7 years….
    It’s bad enough when undergrads leave cars in the parking lot for just a semester and expect to make it home safely. First tires assume a “D” shape when the vehicle is parked — they *always* have that shape but it’s sitting there that causes the cracks that lead to blowouts. And then there are basic things like a battery replacement and radiator flush every 3-4 years, an oil change every 6 months (I do mine every 3, but it’s how I drive), and a bunch of other stuff that is unrelated to mileage. Then unless preservative was put into the gasoline, you need to drain that out after 6 months because it develops varnishes (and that’s assuming the tank was full — otherwise the water vapor in the air will put water into the E-10 gasoline), water gets into the brake fluid and — well — etc.

    It’s seven years of deferred maintenance and just because the vehicle wasn’t driven doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need it. In fact, the fact that it wasn’t driven actually makes things a lot worse.

    It’s really not good to not drive a vehicle *at least* daily, and driving a vehicle that has sat this long leads to concerns about everything including oil that has leaked past piston rings — run that through a Cat Converter and it will get red hot and then you can start having car fires (I’ve seen it happen — although Mr. Fire Extinguisher prevented the car fire…).

    I credit the people who got the vehicle back — but what you got back wasn’t what the state stole.

    1. I’m not an advocate of Heroin salesmen, I’ve seen too much of the human carnage, but what the government fails to realize is that the “professional” drug dealers won’t have any equity in the vehicles that get seized, and there is always some provision ensuring thaty thew banks don’t lose their money….

      1. I think the takeaway moral is: If you’re gonna use a vehicle to commit crimes, lease, don’t buy.
        (More seriously; asset forfeiture is one of these few issues where there is almost universal agreement along the political spectrum…with revulsion to the Kelo decision being the other main issue that leaps to mind.) Other than law enforcement, you really don’t hear people come out in favor of how it’s actually been used.

        1. “asset forfeiture is one of these few issues where there is almost universal agreement along the political spectrum”

          Civil asset forfeiture without conviction, agreed.

          This is criminal asset forfeiture after a conviction as part of his punishment. Different animal.

          1. Bob, good catch; I did not stop to think about that distinction before posting. It is your sense that Republicans and Democrats differ about post-conviction asset seizures? (My own sense is that both parties would strongly support seizure of an that is both tied to the crime and is not grossly disproportionately valuable re the severity of the crime. I’d be surprised if Dems were much more pro-seizure, or if Rep’s were much more pro-seizure…if only because there have been well-publicized cases of both Dem and Rep criminals having property seized, so there’s lots of cases that appeal to the sympathies of both sides.)

            I gather that you might disagree with this conclusion, yes?

            1. I can’t speak for Bob, or for all Democrats, but I can tell you that I’m a Democrat who would be just fine with forfeiting assets actually used to commit a crime, or unambiguously purchased with the proceeds of a crime, following a criminal conviction.

  2. Its true that the Land Rover has little value as a vehicle today. I suggest that Mr Timbs donate it to IJ. They can have it bronzed and mounted outside their offices as a symbol of resistance.

    That would also make it much more fun if the state wants to re-seize it any time in the future.

    1. And set the wheels in concrete.

      That’ll make it fun to try to seize it again….

    2. If not for the obvious legal consequences; I’d suggest that Timbs donate it to the police dept that seized it…by driving it through a wall and into the police dept’s lobby. (After hours, when no one would be there, of course.)

      1. Oh, I much prefer they return it with a valid state inspection sticker as it would be illegal for him to drive it to an inspection station.

        That would be priceless because I wouldn’t put a sticker on it….

        1. Although if he were to take your recommendation, I would suggest the playground of the school that the officer’s children attend. While they are present.

          If we have to resort to asymmetric warfare, and I pray we don’t, that’s what it’s going to be. And the decent cops understand this.

          And this is why I think that burying them in legal paperwork is a good thing. The vehicle was in their custody — why wasn’t it inspected?

  3. I don’t know how legislatures fail to see these egregious asset forfeiture cases as offensive to any sense of justice. What looks so much like theft by the state doesn’t trouble their collective consciences?

    1. No, because then they would have raise taxes. Asset forfeiture is a way to raise revenue without raising taxes.

      1. You say that cynically, not approvingly, right?

        1. Correct. I think it’s morally repugnant but in point of fact a significant part of politics is figuring out how to pay for things without raising taxes. That’s why things like asset forfeiture and red light cameras and speed traps are so popular with politicians. It’s also why we’re trillions in debt. I don’t like it but that’s reality.

          1. So the state’s crusade continues because the decision-makers figure the PR storm will abate soon regardless, so they may as well try to keep the bucks rolling in if they can?

            1. Basically yes. And there’s not even that much of a PR storm. Abusive asset forfeiture has been going on for decades. Once in a while some journalist will write an article about it, but nothing ever comes of it.

  4. When he prevails, as I hope he ultimately will, the state should pay him the depreciation on the car and for his loss of use.

  5. No love lost for heroin dealers and by now I’m sure he’s bought another vehicle so getting the Rover back isn’t a big deal.

    Big picture though – 8A is now incorporated (unbelievable that it wasn’t already), and asset forfeiture is in the courts which by themselves are worthy results.

  6. Does this:

    In April, an Indiana judge ruled that, under the new test, the seizure of Timbs’ Land Rover—”a tool essential to maintaining employment, obtaining treatment, and reducing the likelihood that he would ever again commit another criminal offense”—was unconstitutionally excessive and ordered the vehicle returned.

    mean that no vehicle, no small the value, can be confiscated?

    If the maximum fine is $100,000 for crime x, and it’s committed using a $2000 car, forfeiture is unconstitutionally excessive?

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