NO MORE CIVIL FORFEITURE, Supreme Court to Decide
To some civil rights advocates, it’s a “law enforcement Weapon of Mass Destruction.”
Civil asset forfeiture – the ability of authorities to seize private property used in a crime – has become a lucrative revenue source for states and a tool to exact punishment, in many cases without insomuch as a court hearing.
For decades, critics have panned the practice as “policing for profit” and an example of unchecked government overreach.
On Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “excessive fines” applies to civil asset forfeiture and whether states are obligated to abide by that Constitutional guarantee.
The case was brought by 37-year-old Tyson Timbs of Marion, Ind., whose Land Rover SUV was seized by local authorities in 2013 after his arrest for selling $260 of heroin.
Timbs pleaded guilty to dealing drugs and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation. He was also assessed $1203 in fines and fees. The government kept his $42,000 Land Rover.
Timbs’ lawyers argued that seizure of the vehicle was unconstitutional, amounting to an excessive fine. The maximum criminal fine for Timbs’ drug offense under Indiana law is $10,000.
“While the negative impact on our society of trafficking in illegal drugs is substantial, a forfeiture of approximately four times the maximum monetary fine is disproportional to Timbs’ illegal conduct,” the state trial court concluded, siding with Timbs.
Timbs’ lawyers contend the freedom from excessive fines – to include forfeiture of valuable personal property – is fundamental for all Americans.
“For ordinary citizens, the real-world consequences can be devastating,” they argue in their brief to the Supreme Court.
“The Excessive Fines Clause secures a single, unitary right: freedom from excessive economic sanctions that are at least partly punitive,” Timbs’ team claims. “To be sure, that right can be violated in countless ways, using countless tools; in this regard, governments are endlessly innovative, ‘with more and more civil laws bearing more and more extravagant punishments.’”
An Indiana appeals court agreed. But the state Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, unlike nearly all the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, has never been applied to the states.
On Wednesday, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher defended that proposition in the U.S. Supreme Court, facing a chorus of skepticism from justices, conservative and liberal.
The idea of civil forfeiture is that since the truck was used in the commission of a crime, it is, in essence, an instrument of the crime. This produces peculiar case names where the property is considered a party to the case. This case: Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 v. State of Indiana.
Since Timbs, in pleading guilty, admitted that he had the drugs in the car when he went to make one sale, that was enough to justify the seizure, the state maintains.
Indiana’s Fisher, in part, argued that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines should not apply, because this case is about seizing property used in the commission of a crime rather than a monetary fine.
“Removing offending property from the offensive use is something that governments have done well before the founding,” Fisher told NPR before the argument.
Timbs’ lawyer, Wesley Hottot, told the Supreme Court that this case is emblematic of the way civil forfeiture laws are used throughout the country — as a mechanism to raise revenue for state and local governments. Backed by the Institute for Justice, Hottot has maintained that the modern system of civil forfeiture has turned into abusive “policing for profit.”
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