An Indiana district court is considering the case of Indiana v. Timbs, an asset-forfeiture case that went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court.
Tyson Timbs has been trying to recover a Land Rover seized by police in connection with his arrest for a drug offense in 2013. The Institute for Justice appealed the property taking all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the prohibition of excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to the states as well as the federal government, on February 19, 2019.
The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the the Indiana Supreme Court, which rejected the state’s argument that any property used in a crime is subject to forfeiture by the government, on October 28, 2019. The state Supreme Court held there are multiple factors that must be weighed in an Eighth Amendment inquiry.
The Indiana Supreme Court sent Tyson Timbs’ case back to the trial court to apply the new standard to the civil forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle. The trial court held a hearing on February 21, 2020, but had not rendered a decision by press time.
A Watershed Moment for Civil Forfeiture
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the excessive fines provision of the federal constitution applies to the states left courts across the country to scrutinize fines and forfeitures under a new legal framework, Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney for the Institute of Justice, who represented Timbs in the U.S. Supreme Court, told Budget & Tax News.
The decision by the Indiana Supreme Court created a three-part test for the trial court to consider, says Hottot.
“The Indiana Supreme Court’s decision is a watershed,” said Hottot. “With its opinion, the Indiana high court synthesized all of those cases and adopted the correct test: one that takes account of all of the circumstances of a particular crime, and a particular offender, to determine whether a given fine or forfeiture would be constitutionally excessive.”
Importantly, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that courts should consider and weigh the offender’s ability to pay. Hottot says that this will help offenders reintegrate into society.
“As the Indiana Supreme Court recognized, we punish billionaires with fines greater than those that might be borne by the general population; it follows that we should punish people of modest means more leniently when the state seeks to take away their property—the only means by which they might get back on the straight and narrow.”
“It’s encouraging that courts are beginning to recognize the Excessive Fines Clause for what it is—a constitutional limit on the ability of the state to profit from its citizens’ crimes,” Hottot said.
The Future of Civil Forfeiture Cases
Moving forward, other state high courts remain free to interpret the Excessive Fines Clause as cases present themselves. Hottot notes that the Indiana Supreme Court made a major contribution to the national discussion of this case with its thoughtful opinion.
The opinion “walks through all of the factors that courts have considered in determining when a fine or forfeiture is excessive,” Hottot said. “And the court got it right. Courts should access excessiveness under all of the circumstances of a case, including the offense and the offender, and the offender’s ability to pay. No one in this country should lose their property when it’s all they have. It is one of the most ancient principles of Anglo-American law that the government cannot take so much from a person that they become destitute.”
Applying these factors, Hottot is confident that the trial court will find the forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle unconstitutionally excessive. “Tyson was a first-time offender. He had never sold drugs to anyone until the police persuaded him to sell them two grams of heroin. He was, at the time, in the desperate throes of opioid addiction—an addiction which he has since kicked.
“Tyson is a model offender,” Hottot said. “He has done everything society has asked for him. He served his time. He paid his fines. He is drug treatment to this day. He is holding down a job. He is serving on a community drug task force that is combating the opioid epidemic in his home town. Taking away his vehicle only makes all of those things harder. It only makes him more likely to reoffend.”
Kelsey E. Hackem (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Washington, D.C.
Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush, “Indiana Supreme Court Opinion: State of Indiana v. Tyson Timbs,” Supreme Court Case No. 27S04-1702-MI-70, October 28, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/indiana-supreme-court-opinion-state-of-indiana-v-tyson-timbs
Jeff Reynolds, “ U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Excessive Fines in Property Confiscation Case,” Budget & Tax News, March 13, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/us-supreme-court-to-decide-indiana-property-confiscation-case
Joe Barnett, “U.S. Supreme Court: Oral Arguments in Timbs V. Indiana,” November 28, 2018: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/supreme-court-oral-arguments-in-timbs-v-indiana