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U.S. Supreme Court Limits States’ Civil Forfeiture Powers

April 4, 2019

In a ruling that significantly curbs the power of state and local law enforcement authorities to seek forfeiture of assets connected to criminal activity, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states.

Civil forfeiture laws permit prosecutors and police to seize assets connected to criminal activity. Since the 1980s, the use of civil forfeiture has skyrocketed as part of the overall war on drugs as federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have used it to seize billions of dollars worth of assets, such as automobiles, boats, airplanes and real estate, as well as cash and bank accounts.

The practice has become highly controversial, however, as most laws permit forfeiture against so-called “innocent owners” who have not been convicted of (or even charged with) a crime, and forfeitures are often wildly disproportionate to the underlying criminal offense. In addition, civil forfeiture laws often allow law enforcement agencies to retain the forfeited assets, thereby creating inherent conflicts of interest in forfeiture practices. At the federal level, forfeiture powers are constrained by the Excessive Fines Clause, but that provision has never been held to apply to the states.

Until now.

In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court limited the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to seek civil forfeiture of assets alleged to be connected to criminal activity. In particular, the Court declares that state civil forfeitures should now be judged on whether they are grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying offense.

In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court held that states must use the same type of analysis employed by the trial court in Timbs’s case, comparing the value of the seized vehicle to the maximum monetary penalty that could be assessed against him as part of his conviction. This decision should also provide much-needed protection to “innocent owners” of property subject to forfeiture.

Background 

Tyson Timbs had pleaded guilty to state drug trafficking and theft charges. At the time of his arrest, the police also seized his Land Rover, which he purchased for approximately $42,000. The state later sought forfeiture of the vehicle, claiming that it had been used to transport heroin. The trial court denied the forfeiture request, finding that forfeiture of the Land Rover would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, thereby violating the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. In making this finding, the trial court observed that the value of the Land Rover was more than four times the maximum $10,000 fine he faced for his drug conviction.

Indiana's intermediate court of appeals affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause applies only to federal action and is inapplicable at the state level. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the question of whether the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, an issue that had never been addressed by the high court.

The Court's Analysis

The Eighth Amendment proscribes that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In her opinion for the Court, Justice Ginsburg traced what she called the “venerable lineage” of the Excessive Fines Clause to 1215, when the Magna Carta mandated that economic sanctions “be proportioned to the wrong.” This principle was recognized in the U.S. colonies, first in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and later, by 1787, when eight state constitutions outlawed excessive fines. By 1868, the constitutions of nearly every state expressly prohibited excessive fines.

Justice Ginsburg also emphasized that the protection against excessive fines has been a “constant shield” in our country’s history, and must remain so. Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions is both “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The case for concluding that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, Justice Ginsburg concluded, is therefore “overwhelming.”