Supreme Court - Unanimous Decision to Limit Fines and Asset Forfeiture

Supreme Court decision provides defendants the ability to challenge outlandish forfeitures and overly burdensome fines.

The Supreme Court has unanimously decided the Eighth Amendment applies to the States and not just Federal cases. This will prohibit excessive fines and fees especially when State agencies seek to seize property or other assets from individuals charged or convicted of a crime.

This decision supports what critics of civil asset forfeiture have been saying for a long time. It also opens another avenue to legally challenge the widely abused practice by which states and local governments can seize cash, cars, homes, and guns that are suspected of being used to commit a crime.

The case before the Supreme Court, Timbs v. Indiana involved the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover SUV from Tyson Timbs, who was arrested in 2015 for selling heroin to undercover police officers. He pled guilty and was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation. The Court suggests that it became excessive when the State of Indiana seized his Land Rover, which was purchased with his father's life insurance payout, not with the proceeds of drug sales. The State claimed that they could seize the vehicle because it had been used to commit a crime.

Timbs’ attorneys argued that taking the vehicle was nothing more than an additional and excessive fine. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected that argument, because the U.S. Supreme Court had never explicitly stated that the Eighth Amendment applied to the states.

The Supreme Court overturned the Indiana Supreme Court in an opinion wrote by Justice Ginsberg:

"For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history. . .Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, or can become sources of revenue disconnected from the criminal justice system.”

Local government uses fines and fees as a means to raise revenue, and that creates a perverse conflict of interest between the bureaucracy and residents of the community. The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states. This will make it far easier to challenge unreasonable fines and fees, as well as, asset forfeiture

This case points out how ridiculous overly burdensome fines and civil asset forfeiture can be when abused. Many times the fines and the confiscation of property only hurts the families left behind when a defendant gets convicted and goes to prison. This inevitably propagates a cycle of crime, when a family is left with very few options and bills to pay.

The Supreme Court and Justice Ginsberg have spoken: Excessive fines are unconstitutional, and civil forfeiture is an additional fine to those who are convicted. If you have been served with a civil forfeiture in connection with a criminal case, please give us a call at 918-884-7791 and let us help you fight for your constitutional rights.

Brian J. Boeheim, Partner, Boeheim Freeman Law