The Supreme Court, in Timbs v. Indiana, recently handed down a unanimous decision that may be the death knell for “policing by profit,” limiting both police and prosecutors across the country. The Court held that the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines, including forfeiture of property, applies to states. This holding will limit asset forfeiture in cases where the forfeiture is based on an instrumentality theory and the asset is “grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense.”
In the underlying case, Tyson Timbs pled guilty in Indiana state court for dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to one year of home detention, five years of probation, and was required to pay fees of $1,203. The maximum fine that could be imposed was $10,000.
When he was arrested, the police seized his Land Rover SUV, which was valued at $42,000. He paid for the vehicle with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State hired a private law firm to engage in a civil suit for forfeiture of the vehicle. Timbs’ principle argument was that the value of the asset seized was grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense, and thus violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The ultimate question for the court was whether the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause was incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment to apply to state action as well as federal action.
The Excessive Fines Clause and the Incorporation Doctrine
The Incorporation Doctrine articulates a principal that the fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are incorporated to provide protection from state action as well as federal action. The Bill of Rights, in its inception, was promulgated as a safety valve from the federal government. After the Civil War, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment containing language akin to the Substantive Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment, which protects individuals from the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment’s subtle, yet significant, difference was that it ensured due process against state action.
Over the ensuing years, and through numerous precedential cases, the Supreme Court began to articulate a test for whether a provision of the Bill of Rights was incorporated. Ultimately the test became whether the clause was so fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty that it ought to have protection from state action.
In determining the fundamental nature of the right in question, the Supreme Court often looks to the history and tradition of the right in question.
Until the Supreme Court case in Timbs, the clause regarding excessive fines had not previously been incorporated to provide protection against the states. This new ruling now advances that protection against excessive fines from the government is so fundamental to ordered liberty that it protects individuals from both federal and state action.
Limits on Asset Forfeiture
This section will serve as a primer for understanding the basics of asset forfeiture. For more information on the subject: Asset forfeiture is the act of the government seizing assets thought to be connected with a crime. Proceeds are the ill-gotten gains of a crime. Instrumentalities, on the other hand, includes anything used to perpetuate the crime.
If an asset was purchased from the proceeds of a crime, or if it was used as an instrumentality in perpetuating the crime, it has the capacity to be seized by the government.
In cases where the assets are purchased from the proceeds of the crime, while an excessive fines analysis occurs, the assets are directly correlated to the gravity of the offense because the proceeds stem from the offense itself. Therefore, it is seldom, if ever, that assets from proceeds are considered excessive pursuant to the Eighth Amendment.
Assets seized as an instrumentality of the offense, however, are judged on a much different basis. This proportionality analysis occurs by taking the pecuniary value of the asset seized and comparing it to the maximum fine that could statutorily be imposed for committing the offense. Thus, if the value of the asset or property is within the monetary value of the maximum fine that could be imposed, the courts will presume that the fine is not excessive. Even when the value of the property is above the value of the maximum fine, as long as the numbers are relatively close, the courts will not declare the forfeiture excessive, and thus unconstitutional.
The Court’s Rationale in Timbs
The Court looked at the history and tradition of the Excessive Fines Clause. The Court was able to trace the lineage of the clause to the year 1215, having its roots in the Magna Carta. They determined that this fundamental document asserted that economic sanctions must be proportioned to the wrong doing. They further noted that this language was present in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was later co-opted into the Eighth Amendment. Furthermore, by 1868, 35 of the 37 States in existence expressly prohibited excessive fines, and that currently, all 50 states do. The Court discerns the understanding historically of the Excessive Fines Clause because it is indicative as to whether the clause is fundamental in the sense that it is deserving of protection from both federal and state action.
Photo of one of only four surviving examples of the 1217 version of the “Magna Carta” or Great Charter.
The Court ultimately held that there was overwhelming evidence to find the Excessive Fines Clause to be fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty. Because of this holding, the seizure of Tyson Timbs’ land rover, being grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense, was unconstitutional.