Rule of Law

RELEASE: Justices Grapple with Constitutional Implications of Hennepin County’s Tax Forfeiture Scheme

WASHINGTON, DC – Following oral argument at the Supreme Court in Tyler v. Hennepin County, a case in which the Court is considering whether the government’s seizure of a property worth far more than needed to satisfy a debt violates the Constitution’s Excessive Fines Clause or Takings Clause, Constitutional Accountability Center Appellate Counsel Miriam Becker-Cohen issued the following reaction:

In this morning’s oral argument, the Justices appeared troubled by Hennepin County’s assertion that the Constitution places no limits on its ability to take absolute title to a property worth $40,000 to satisfy a 94-year-old woman’s $15,000 debt of unpaid property taxes, interest, and fees.

Although most of the argument focused on whether this scheme violates the Takings Clause, several Justices asked important questions related to the Excessive Fines Clause.  Importantly, those questions focused on whether the statutory scheme relied on by Hennepin County serves in part to punish.

As we explained in our brief, the history of the Excessive Fines Clause, as well as Supreme Court precedents, make clear that even an extraction that serves primarily remedial purposes still constitutes a “fine” within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment if it is partially punitive. Echoing this point, Justice Gorsuch rightly noted that the district court’s reasoning—concluding that Hennepin County’s scheme was not a fine because its “primary purpose was to compensate”—simply “doesn’t line up under our case law.”

The Court should reach the Excessive Fines Clause issue and hold that the courts below got it wrong. Doing so will help ensure that the Excessive Fines Clause can continue to play its important role in guarding against government abuse and overreach.



Case page in Tyler v. Hennepin County: 


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