Justices Rule Ban on Excessive Fines Applies to States

(CN) – Finding against Indiana’s seizure of a convicted drug dealer’s Land Rover, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to states as well as the federal government.

Tyson Timbs used life insurance money from his father’s death to buy a $42,000 Land Rover in 2013. He then used the vehicle to buy and transport heroin between Marion and Richmond, Indiana, according to court records.

Police learned of the trafficking and set up a sting operation. An informant and undercover detective bought two grams of heroin from Timbs on two separate occasions.

Timbs was apprehended on the day that a third controlled buy was planned. His Land Rover had more than 17,000 miles on it, compared to just 1,237 miles when he bought it four months earlier.

He was charged with dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, both felonies. Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years, with one year in confinement and five years suspended to probation.

Indiana also sought to seize Timbs’ Land Rover. The trial court denied the state’s forfeiture action, finding that it would constitute an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment because it was “grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant’s offense.” The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, excessive bail and excessive fines.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the decision ordering the state to release the Land Rover, but the state’s high court reversed in 2017 finding that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause does not prevent Indiana from seizing the vehicle because the U.S. Supreme Court has not held that the clause applies to states via the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

Timbs appealed to the nation’s highest court, writing in a petition for a writ of certiorari that the Indiana Supreme Court adopted a “minority view.” Because of the ruling, he said Indiana residents have “Eighth Amendment protection against fines and forfeitures imposed by the federal government but not against those imposed by state and local authorities.”

It seemed inevitable at oral arguments in November that the justices would make states comply with the constitutional bar against excessive fines.

Indeed, they ruled 9-0 Wednesday that the excessive fines clause applies to the states, not just the federal government.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who returned to the bench this week after surgery to remove two cancerous growths from her left lung, delivered the unanimous opinion. She wrote that “historical and logical” support for the high court’s decision is overwhelming.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote in the 9-page ruling. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment only, writing in a separate opinion that he “cannot agree with the route the court takes to reach this conclusion.”

“Instead of reading the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to encompass a substantive right that has nothing to do with ‘process,’ I would hold that the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” he said.  

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