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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.