Criminal Justice

Timbs v. Indiana

In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court considered whether state governments must comply with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines.”

In Brief

The 14th Amendment was ratified to ensure that the individual liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights—including the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from excessive fines—would be protected against infringement by state governments as well as the federal government.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already held that most of the protections in the Bill of Rights apply to the states under the 14th Amendment, but it has not specifically ruled on the Excessive Fines Clause.
The U.S. Supreme Court should rule that states may not impose constitutionally excessive fines in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Case Summary

After Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to a drug offense in Indiana, he was sentenced to home detention followed by probation. But the state then authorized a civil forfeiture action to seize ownership of his personal vehicle—which was worth four times more than the maximum fine he could have received for his crime—because he drove the vehicle while committing his offense. An Indiana trial court ruled that forfeiting the vehicle would be “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of Timbs’s offense and therefore unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, and an Indiana intermediate court agreed. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed this decision and reinstated the forfeiture. It did so not because it concluded that the fine was commensurate with the offense but rather because it concluded that Indiana does not have to obey the Excessive Fines Clause. CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Timbs’s case, and the Court granted his petition for certiorari.

CAC also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Timbs on the merits of the case. As our brief explains, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified to ensure that the individual liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights—including the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from excessive fines—would be protected against infringement by state governments as well as by the federal government. Indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment was a response to notorious violations of fundamental liberties by the states before and after the Civil War. In the wake of the emancipation of the slaves, Southern states enacted oppressive laws known as the Black Codes in an attempt to replicate the conditions of slavery. As the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment were keenly aware, these laws abridged the former slaves’ property rights and imposed severe criminal penalties on them, including outlandish fines, in order to coerce them back into the plantation labor system. The Fourteenth Amendment was meant to combat these injustices by applying the restrictions of the Bill of Rights to the states—a transformation of the nation’s federal system.

While the Supreme Court has already held that most of the protections in the Bill of Rights apply to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, it has not specifically ruled on the Excessive Fines Clause. Seizing on that point, the Indiana Supreme Court announced that it would “decline” to impose “a federal test” on Indiana in the absence of a direct command by the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision, our brief argues, is entirely at odds with the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In a unanimous ruling, the Court agreed, holding that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines” applies to the states under the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed, this protection has been “a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history.” Like our brief, Justice Ginsburg’s opinion highlighted the influence of the oppressive fines imposed under the Black Codes on the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment and said he would have held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause prohibits the states from imposing excessive fines. His concurrence relied heavily on our brief, echoing its language and extensively citing the historical sources we provided.

Case Timeline

  • March 5, 2018

    CAC files cert-stage amicus brief

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • May 4, 2018

    Indiana files brief in opposition to Timbs’ certiorari petition

  • May 16, 2018

    Timbs files reply in response to Indiana’s opposition

  • June 18, 2018

    Supreme Court grants certiorari

  • September 11, 2018

    CAC files a merits-stage amicus brief

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • November 28, 2018

    The Court hears oral arguments

  • February 20, 2019

    The Court issues its ruling

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