The Supreme Court has just put the clamps on states’ ability to impose excessive fines and use civil asset forfeiture to seize private property.
On Wednesday February 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the Eight Amendment’s ban on excessive fines also applies to states. This landmark ruling bolsters property rights and could curtail controversial law enforcement seizures, especially those carried out via civil forfeiture.
In the decision, Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court sided with small time drug offender Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by law enforcement officials. Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most controversial methods used to raise revenue across the nation. However, it has garnered considerable criticism from political figures across the political spectrum.
In a previous case, Austin v. United States, the Court ruled that the Eight Amendment, which is clear about its prohibition of “excessive fines”, limits the federal government’s ability to seize property. Timbs v. Indiana now extends those limits to the states.
For once, Justice Ruth Ginsburg gets it right. She wrote:
“The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.”
Ginsburg drew from Anglo-American legal traditions to rule in Timbs’s favor:
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”
She also presciently noted the potential abuse that excessive fines engender:
“Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”
If only she applied such reasoning to other cases where she has let judicial activism get the best of her…
Anyways, this decision is a welcome development for criminal justice.
Now, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly is considering a bill, HB 1286, which requires that a criminal conviction be obtained before any forfeiture is carried out, and then mandates that proceeds from the seizure go to a general or school fund instead of going directly to a police department’s budget. This bill would also close the “equitable sharing” loophole, which allows law enforcement agencies to bypass strict state forfeiture laws by passing these cases off to the feds.
In times of high political polarization it’s great to see the Supreme Court come to a unanimous decision on civil asset forfeiture. This is one issue that should unite people from all sides of the political aisle.
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