WASHINGTON — Siding with a small time drug offender in Indiana whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by law enforcement officials, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the Constitution places limits on civil forfeiture laws that allow states and localities to take and keep private property used to commit crimes.
Civil forfeiture is a popular way to raise revenue, and its use has been the subject of widespread criticism across the political spectrum.
In a 2017 opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that “this system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” His opinion cited reporting from The Washington Post and The New Yorker.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which bars “excessive fines,” limits the ability of the federal government to seize property. On Wednesday, the court ruled that the clause also applies to the states.
Previously, the Supreme Court had never squarely addressed that question. It had addressed the status of the Excessive Fines Clause, but only in the context of the federal government. The court had, however, previously ruled that most protections under the Bill of Rights apply to the states — or were incorporated against them, in the legal jargon — under the 14th Amendment, one of the post-Civil War amendments.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for eight justices, said the question was an easy one. “The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” she wrote.
“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.”
“Even absent a political motive,” she wrote, quoting from an earlier decision, “fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a state money.’ ”
Justice Ginsburg wrote that excessive fines have played a dark role in this nation’s history.
“Following the Civil War,” she wrote, “Southern States enacted Black Codes to subjugate slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy. Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on ‘vagrancy’ and other dubious offenses.”
The court left open the question of whether the seizure of the Land Rover amounted to an excessive fine, leaving its resolution to lower courts. But Justice Ginsburg suggested that the penalty was disproportionate to the offense.
The case concerned Tyson Timbs, who pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police officers. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation, and he was ordered to pay $1,200 in fees and fines.
State officials also seized Mr. Timbs’s vehicle, which he had bought with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy; authorities said he had used it to commit crimes. Justice Ginsburg wrote that the vehicle was worth “more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction.”
The Indiana trial judge who heard Mr. Timbs’s case ruled in his favor, saying that “the amount of the forfeiture sought is excessive and is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant’s offense.” An appeals court agreed.
But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Timbs, saying that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines did not apply to ones imposed by states. In the next phase of the litigation, Indiana courts will decide whether the seizure of the Land Rover amounted to an excessive fine.
Justice Thomas agreed with the result in the case, Timbs v. Indiana, No. 17-1091, but said he would have gotten to the same place by a different route. While the majority relied on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, Justice Thomas said he would have ruled “the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the ‘privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States’ protected by the 14th Amendment.”