Timbs v. Indiana
After Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to drug offenses in Indiana, the state initiated civil forfeiture proceedings to take ownership of his Land Rover, alleging that he had used the vehicle during his crimes. An Indiana trial court held that forfeiting the vehicle would be “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of Timbs’s offenses, for which he had been sentenced only to home detention and probation, and that the forfeiture was therefore unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. 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 is not bound by the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause.
CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Timbs’s 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 slaves, Southern states enacted oppressive laws known as 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 property rights of former slaves 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 U.S. Supreme Court has already held that most of the protections in the Bill of Rights apply to the states through 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. In doing so, our brief argues, the Indiana Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to enforce the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court should therefore take Timbs’s case and rule that states may not impose constitutionally excessive fines in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
March 5, 2018
CAC files cert-stage amicus briefU.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief