Supreme Court's Ruling on Excessive Fines Could Make it Harder for Police to Seize Your Assets


In recent years, there’s been increasing awareness about civil asset forfeiture laws and other controversial police seizures many argue are nothing more than abuses of the law. Created to provide police with greater ability to cripple major criminal enterprises, forfeiture and seizure policies have been used by many police departments more as a means to benefit their bottom lines than to fight crime. What’s more, people whose property has been seized face an uphill and often costly battle to recover it – even if their cases are dropped, they’re found not guilty, or they were never charged with a crime.

Those types of abuses and attention being given to them are not only detrimental to the individual rights and freedoms of Americans, but also their faith and conscience in law enforcement and our laws. That may soon change with a recent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court which could make it more difficult for police to seize your stuff.

Timbs v. Indiana: A Lesson in Constitutional Law & U.S. History

On Wednesday February 20, 2019, all nine of the Supreme Court Justices unanimously ruled that the Constitutional ban on excessive fines, which is included in the Constitution as part of the 8th Amendment, also applies to the states. That simple decision powerfully strengthens property rights in the U.S., and may very well curtail the controversial use of seizures conducted by local and state police.

The ruling stems from Timbs v. Indiana, in which a man who had pleaded guilty to drug crime and conspiracy charges filed suit against the state of Indiana. In the suit, he claimed he was ordered by the court, through civil asset forfeiture, to give up a Land Rover SUV worth around $40K, which he had purchased using money from his dad’s life insurance policy. In short, the man argued the seizure of the vehicle amounted to an excessive fine, as it was over 4x the $10,000 maximum fine imposed by the state of Indiana for his drug conviction.

The essential question created by the case came down to whether states, like the federal government itself, are subject to the 8th Amendment prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines. Although the Bill of Rights – or the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – is known to many, few know it only applied to the federal level when it was ratified in 1791. Following the end of the Civil War, however, the 14th Amendment was ratified, and promised to extend Constitutional rights to the state level.

In the years since then, SCOTUS has issued rulings that most of the Bill of Rights apply to the states, in addition to the federal government, through what’s known as incorporation. However, a few parts remained unincorporated – including the 8th Amendment’s provision on excessive fines, at least until a late-February Wednesday in 2019.

Why the Ruling Matters

While lower courts sided with Timbs and his arguments regarding excessive fines, Indiana’s state Supreme Court did not. The SCOTUS ruling overturns that decision, and also adds an additional layer of protection. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes, excessive fines “undermine other Constitutional liberties,” and can be used for political motives or in ways that don’t align with goals of punishment and deterrence, as fines provide a source of revenue, whereas other penalties “cost a State money.”

At a practical level, the ruling may allow individuals, critics of police seizure abuses, and criminal defense attorneys to more easily fight civil forfeiture and other unlawful seizures, and potentially deter local and state police from taking those actions in the first place. However, that will depend on the individual facts and circumstances of any case. As the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that civil forfeiture are covered by the excessive fines ban when they’re at least partly punitive in nature, the incorporation of that clause at the state level means the same standard should apply in the states moving forward.

Ultimately, the ruling is one applauded by many – and it expands legal protections of property rights on a broader scope. Those rights, like the many other civil and Constitutional rights which often come under fire when criminal charges are brought, are the same rights our legal team at Koffel Brininger Nesbitt works to protect for our clients. If you have a criminal matter in Columbus or the surrounding areas of Ohio, contact us to speak with an attorney. You can learn more about our practice areas on our website.