After Eight Years And Three Reviews Of The Case, Indiana Supreme Court Rules Police Must Return Seized Car To Its Owner

from the thousands-of-dollars-spent-fighting-against-the-public's-interests dept

It’s now been eight years since Indiana law enforcement seized Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover following his arrest for distributing drugs. In eight years, this case has made multiple visits to the state trial court, the state court of appeals, the state’s Supreme Court, and the nation’s Supreme Court.

This isn’t just due to Timbs’ tenacity and his desire to have his car returned. His only car — worth $35,000 when it was seized — has been sitting in an impound lot for most of decade, all because of criminal charges that netted Timbs $1,200 in fines and one year of home detention.

No, these multiple trips are due to the state of Indiana attempting to prevent precedent from being set that would prevent it from seizing whatever it wants whenever it wants. Previous rulings found excessive fines — in this case taking the form of a $35,000 vehicle seizure over $400 of heroin sold to undercover officers — violate the Eighth Amendment. And these rulings also reminded the state that it had incorporated that part of the US Constitution years ago and couldn’t try to ignore it now just because it still wants to avail itself of Benjamins when ringing up people on nickel-and-dime charges.

So, for the third time, the Indiana state Supreme Court is forced to handle the Timbs case because the state has refused to accept every previous ruling that has gone against it, including the one handed down by the US Supreme Court. The opening of the ruling [PDF] expresses some of the court’s exasperation with the state’s stubbornness.

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, this 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.

All of these questions have been capably handled at each step of this long, laborious process. The problem is the state doesn’t like the answers it’s been getting. And the state Supreme Court doesn’t appear to like the state’s refusal to listen. There are some facts to consider, but as far as the state’s top court is concerned, they were answered amply by the lower court.

[U]ntil 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.

The key is the excessive fines part of the Eighth Amendment. The courts must decide whether the seizure was proportionate. The lower court — after hearing from witnesses on Timbs’ behalf (the state decided not to call any of its own) — made the right call by weighing the cost against the crime. The seizure of Timbs’ only vehicle didn’t serve any greater public interest. All it did was enrich the state at Timbs’ expense.

[C]ontrary to the State’s position, we conclude that the $35,000 market value of the vehicle and the other sanctions imposed on Timbs point to the punitive, rather than remedial, nature of the forfeiture. As Timbs II explained, it’s appropriate to evaluate the market value of the forfeiture relative to the owner’s economic means—because “taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing” do not reflect equal punishments. 134 N.E.3d at 36. And, here, taking away a $35,000 asset from someone who owned nothing else was significantly punitive. Likewise, imposing the forfeiture on top of other sanctions—sanctions that included six years of restricted liberty as well as $1,200 in fees and costs — shows that the vehicle’s seizure was not for remedial purposes.

Finally this comes to an end, years after it should have been obvious seizing Timbs’ car violated the Eighth Amendment right to be free from excessive fines.

Accordingly, we affirm the trial court; and the seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.

The state and its law enforcement agencies are now subject to a proportionality test that weighs the severity of the crime against the value of the items seized. If this test stands during criminal asset forfeiture — the seizures accompanying actual criminal charges — it needs to be applied to cases where law enforcement can’t even be bothered to affect an arrest, much less pursue criminal charges when seizing property. This is good news for Indiana residents. And it has the potential to disrupt forfeiture efforts nationwide.

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Comments on “After Eight Years And Three Reviews Of The Case, Indiana Supreme Court Rules Police Must Return Seized Car To Its Owner”

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Anonymous Coward says:

If the state thought it was getting anything of value by storing a car without regular maintenance or use for eight years, then their argument is bullshit for that reason alone. The car is likely worthless now. It probably needs tens of thousands of dollars of repair.

What public benefit was gained from storing a useless vehicle for so long?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"What public benefit was gained from storing a useless vehicle for so long?"

Officially probably none. Unofficially? I smell a desperate attempt by law enforcement to circumvent the law of the land by handing out a penalty harder than handed down by the courts. All in the name of the War On Drugs.

It smells more than a little bit of Banana Republic or South American Junta, honestly – but that’s not exactly a new fragrance of the US by now.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I think protection of income might have been a huge part of it."

You mean the fact that law enforcement not rarely uses civil forfeiture as an extra source of funding? Yes, likely.

Also, in the unlikely case the US ever gets to scrutinizing campaign funding it might be interesting to see how much lobbying money is poured into US politics courtesy of north and south american cartels. The war on drugs is what keeps drug prices and margins extremely high so I’d expect at least some of the fanatic zeal the US body politic and law enforcement has visavi their drug war to be fueled by the actual purveyors of the drug.

If the prohibition era taught us anything it is that a ban on a popular substance only fuels the creation of organized crime to provide that substance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That a bunch of jurors are going to hear a case where the state went above and beyond to deny a citizens rights & allowed the item at the center of it to become worthless as a final f u to the defendant.

Then they will get to decide how much of their taxes will be spent to compensate him for the loss of the vehicle & the costs inflicted by the state as they kept shopping for a court that would let them keep the property they had illegally seized.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Eight years for something that should have taken five minutes

The state and its law enforcement agencies are now subject to a proportionality test that weighs the severity of the crime against the value of the items seized.

It would be nice if that were the case but given their dogged determination to keep stolen goods I imagine it’s only a matter of time until another victim finds themselves in court having to argue against the state’s claims that stealing a piece of property worth $34,999 is perfectly proportional and fair, because without any actual punishment for stealing public property those engaging in the theft have no real reason to care about this ruling and every reason to continue to steal as much as possible.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

It would be interesting to find out how much money the stated paid to litigate this issue. Money that was paid for by the people of Indiana via their taxes. Money that could have gone to much better uses.

Tax dollars hard at work…. screwing the people who pay the taxes.

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