Supreme Court Agrees To Take Petition Asking Whether Eighth Amendment Protections Apply To Asset Forfeiture
from the chance-to-reshape-forfeiture-programs-from-the-bench dept
The Supreme Court has agreed to take a case that may alter how states run their asset forfeiture programs. As it stands now, there’s nothing unifying forfeiture policies across the nation and, under Jeff Sessions, the DOJ has reopened the federal forfeiture pressure valve, allowing state agencies to bypass recently-passed reforms.
But there’s still something at the federal level that possibly affects state-level forfeitures. The question for the Supreme Court is whether or not a Constitutional protection overrides state laws. The case centers on the seizure of an Indiana resident’s Land Rover after a drug bust. Tyson Timbs had purchased the $42,000 vehicle with funds from his father’s life insurance. So, the vehicle was legally obtained with funds not even remotely linked to Timbs’ drug dealing.
The state took it because Timbs used it to transport drugs on one of the controlled buys cops performed. It processed it as a civil asset forfeiture (rather than a criminal asset forfeiture) to get around the fact the fines and sentence didn’t justify the criminal seizure of a $42,000 vehicle. A drug sale of $225 netted Timbs a year of house arrest and $1200 in legal fees. Then the state decided to take his car because why not.
That’s what Timbs is challenging. The Eighth Amendment contains an Excessive Fines Clause. Timbs is hoping to have the court find the seizure of a $42,000 vehicle over $225 worth of drugs a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Considering the state levies a maximum $10,000 fine for the offense Timbs was charged with, a $40,000 seizure would appear to be excessive. But Timbs only batted .500 in Indiana courts.
[T]he trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Tyson suffered from drug addiction, the court noted, but his only record of dealing was selling a small amount of drugs to undercover police. The court also noted the “financial burdens” that Tyson had already faced when he pleaded guilty. Taking his car on top of all that would violate the Eighth Amendment.
Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana Supreme Court said, “We will not impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”
As Timbs notes in his Supreme Court brief [PDF], the court needs to take action to resolve splits not only at the federal level, but across the many state courts. There’s no unified judicial theory of Eighth Amendment protections against civil asset forfeiture and this is only allowing states where forfeiture abuse is prevalent to become more abusive. The DOJ’s escape hatch certainly isn’t helping. A decision in Timbs’ favor won’t be a drastic alteration but it will provide another avenue of attack for those seeking to challenge forfeitures.
It may also force law enforcement agencies to do what they say they do, rather than what they actually do. They claim forfeiture is an essential tool for crippling huge criminal organizations and drug cartels. In reality, it’s usually just a convenient way for agencies to enrich themselves at the expense of low-level dealers like Timbs and, worse, people who are never criminally charged.