Supreme Court rules states may not impose excessive fines
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that state law enforcement is bound by the same rules against excessive fines as the feds, incorporating a new Eighth Amendment protection against efforts to seize property.
The justices, in a 9-0 decision, ruled in a case involving a convicted Indiana drug dealer whose SUV cops wanted to forfeit to pay off his fines — but the vehicle was worth four times what he owed. The high court said seizing the car to pay off his fine was grossly disproportionate.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delivered the court’s opinion, said protection against excessive economic sanctions was “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.”
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” she wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”
The ruling comes as police forfeiture powers are increasingly under scrutiny.
In the case before the court, Tyson Timbs faced a maximum $10,000 fine a drug-dealing conviction involving $400 worth of heroin. He struck a deal agreeing to pay about $1,200 as part of his sentence, which also included a year in home detention and five years on probation.
Indiana then filed papers to conduct a civil forfeiture of his 2012 Land Rover, which he purchased for roughly $40,000 after receiving an inheritance from his father, and which was used in his drug-dealing.
A trial court ruled for Timbs, saying the value of the vehicle was far more than even his maximum penalty. An appeals court affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against him, saying the U.S. Constitution’s protection against excessive fines only applied to federal authorities.
The Supreme Court stepped in Wednesday, ruling for Timbs and establishing that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause does extend to the states, via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process guarantees.
Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas both wrote concurring opinions agreeing with the court’s ultimate ruling, but disagreeing with the legal reasoning.
They said the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines should be incorporated through the 14th Amendment’s privileges and immunity clause rather than through due process.
“As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the states,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Brianne Gorod, chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, said the ruling was a “milestone in the 228 year history of the Bill of Rights.”
“Significantly, this case has united progressives and conservatives—both advocates and the justices themselves—in a shared understanding of the original meaning of the Constitution,” she said.