The Volokh Conspiracy
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Earlier today, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a ruling that is likely to finally end the long-running saga of Indiana v. Timbs, a major asset forfeiture case that has resulted in three separate rulings by the state supreme Court, and a path-breaking decision by the federal Supreme Court, ruling that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is "incorporated" against state governments. The case arises from the state's efforts to use civil asset forfeiture to seize Tyson Timbs' Land Rover, which he had used on trips to purchase illegal drugs and (in one instance) try to sell some to a man who turned out to be an undercover police officer.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which the government can seize property that was allegedly used in the commission of a crime, often even if the owner was never charged or convicted of any offense. In many states, law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep the proceeds from the property they seize. The system is the source of extensive abuses, which I summarized in my 2019 testimony before the Arkansas State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.
In this case, Timbs admits that he committed the crimes in question. But he argued that the forfeiture of the Land Rover vehicle violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, in large part because the value of the Land Rover (about $42,000) is vastly greater than the fine for the crimes he committed.
When the case first got to the Indiana Supreme Court in 2017, the justices ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause doesn't even apply to state governments (it was one of the few parts of the Bill of Rights that had never been "incorporated" against the states by the federal Supreme Court). That ruling was overturned in a unanimous 2019 decision by the federal Supreme Court, which held that the Excessive Fines Clause does indeed apply to the states, and that it imposes at least some constraints on asset forfeiture.
However, the Supreme Court did not resolve the issue of how to determine what qualifies as an "excessive" forfeiture, nor whether the forfeiture of Timbs' property was excessive. Thus, the issue went back to the Indiana Supreme Court, which, in October 2019 issued a decision setting out standards for what qualifies as "excessive."
Based on that ruling, the trial court in the Timbs case concluded that the seizure of his vehicle was indeed "excessive," and finally ordered to the return of the Land Rover last year. Even after that, the state persisted. They appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court ruling was wrong, and, more generally, that the state supreme court should adopt an approach to measuring excessiveness that is more favorable to law enforcement.
Finally, today, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Timbs, in a 4-1 decision:
We chronicle and confront, for the third time, the State's quest to forfeit Tyson Timbs's now-famous white Land Rover. And, again, the same overarching question looms: would the forfeiture be constitutional? Reminiscent of Captain Ahab's chase of the white whale Moby Dick,1this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again. During the voyage, several points have come to light. First, the vehicle's forfeiture, due to its punitive nature, is subject to the Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive fines. Next, to stay within the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture of Timbs's vehicle must meet two requirements: instrumentality and proportionality. And, finally, the forfeiture falls within the instrumentality limit because the vehicle was the actual means by which Timbs committed the underlying drug offense. But, until now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved—that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover's forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs's dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle's misuse? The State not only urges us to answer that question in the negative, but it also requests that we wholly abandon the proportionality framework from State v. Timbs, 134 N.E.3d 12, 35–39 (Ind. 2019). Today, we reject the State's request to overturn precedent, as there is no compelling reason to deviate from stare decisis and the law of the case; and we conclude that Timbs met his burden to show gross disproportionality, rendering the Land Rover's forfeiture unconstitutional….
[T]he Land Rover's forfeiture is not unconstitutional just because Timbs was poor. Or because he suffered from addiction. Or because he dealt drugs to an undercover officer and not someone who would use them. And it's not simply because the vehicle's value was three-and-a- half times the maximum fine for the underlying offense. Or because he received the minimum possible sentence for his crime and wasn't a sophisticated, experienced dealer. Or because the car, his only asset, was essential to him reintegrating into society to maintain employment and seek treatment. Rather, it's the confluence of all these facts that makes Timbs the unusual claimant who could overcome the high hurdle of showing gross disproportionality…
Applying the proportionality framework set forth in Timbs II, we conclude that Timbs met his high burden to show that the harshness of his Land Rover's forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle's misuse. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court; and the seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.
Chief Justice Rush's majority opinion in Timbs III compares the case to Captain Ahab's ill-fated effort to catch Moby Dick. I previously compared it to Inspector Javert's prolonged quest to track down a man whose only offense was breaking parole on a sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Readers can decide for themselves which literary analogy is better!
While this result is a happy outcome for Timbs, it may have only limited impact on asset forfeiture more generally. The Court emphasized that only "grossly disproportionate" forfeitures qualify as "excessive," and that such cases are rare.
Moreover, there is some merit to the concurring and dissenting opinions' claim that the majority's multi-part test for determining what counts as "gross disproportionality" is imprecise and subjective. While some may worry that this will enable defendants to keep property they supposedly should not, I worry that lower-court judges sympathetic to the War on Drugs (which accounts for a high percentage of asset forfeitures) can use the test in ways that make it very difficult for property owners convicted of drug offenses to ever get a forfeiture overturned.
Today's result is better than the even more permissive standard advocated by the state, and certainly better than the pre-Timbs world in which the Excessive Fines Clause wasn't even applied against state governments. Among other things, this decision and Timbs II provide strong protection for owners who have not in fact committed any crime. But we still have a long way to go to fully eliminate the massive abuses caused by the asset forfeiture system, not all of which can be addressed through even the most rigorous enforcement of the Excessive Fines Clause.
Fortunately, legislative reforms have been enacted in many states. There are also ongoing efforts to challenge asset forfeiture under both state and federal constitutional provisions. The Biden Justice Department could help by repealing 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.
Like Moby Dick, the struggle against asset forfeiture is a long and tangled tale, of which the Timbs case is just one extraordinarily lengthy chapter. Hopefully, it will ultimately have a happier ending than Captain Ahab's voyage.
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 commented on the latest Indiana Supreme Court ruling here.