SCOTUS schedules Indiana Land Rover civil forfeiture case

The nation’s highest court will hear an Indiana civil forfeiture case next month that could determine whether the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive fines can be applied on the state level.

The justices of the United States Supreme Court will hear Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091, at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28. The case is on appeal from the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled last November that the Excessive Fines Clause has not been incorporated to the states.

In Timbs, Indiana’s justices held the state did not err when it seized Tyson Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover after he was arrested and charged on theft and drug counts. The state justices’ ruling overturned decisions from both the trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals, which reversed the forfeiture on the grounds that it was “grossly disproportionate” to Timbs’ offenses. The Court of Appeals noted the Land Rover was worth more than four times the amount Timbs could be statutorily required to pay in fines.

In a January cert petition, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which took up Timbs’ case after the Indiana Supreme Court ruling, argued the state high court erred in finding the Excessive Fines Clause had not been incorporated to the states. Sam Gedge, an attorney representing Timbs, noted other Eighth Amendment clauses, including protections against cruel and unusual punishment, have been incorporated.

“They (the Eighth Amendment clauses) all secure a parallel set of rights to be free from excessive fines and punishment,” Gedge told Indiana Lawyer in June. “If one clause is incorporated, then the others should be incorporated, as well.”

The state argued Timbs’ case was not the appropriate vehicle for SCOTUS to consider the Eighth Amendment question, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted the cert petition in June. The Indiana Attorney General’s Office will argue on behalf of the state during the Nov. 28 arguments.

Also pending is an appeal before the Indiana Supreme Court that challenges Indiana’s civil forfeiture practices under the state Constitution. The state justices granted emergency transfer to Jeana M. Horner, et al. v. Terry R. Curry, et al., 18S-PL-00333, in June after a Marion Superior Court judge upheld the constitutionality of the former Hoosier process of disbursing civil forfeiture proceeds.

This time representing a Marion County resident, the Institute for Justice urged Judge Thomas Carroll to strike down the practice of allowing law enforcement to divert proceeds to their offices before depositing the remaining balance in the Common School Fund. Under Article 8, Section 2 of the Indiana Constitution, “… the fines assessed for breaches of the penal laws of the State; and from all forfeiture which may accrue …” must be diverted into the Common School Fund, a mandate the IJ said unambiguously requires all forfeiture proceeds to go into the fund.

But Carroll determined in March that the constitutional provision did not include civil forfeitures. He also declined to rule on a statutory argument against Indiana’s civil forfeiture practices, finding that argument was moot in light of Senate Enrolled Act 99, which took effect July 1. SEA 99 lays out a specific formula for the disbursement of civil forfeiture proceeds that begins with attorneys’ fees and flows through law enforcement before depositing any remaining proceeds into the Common School Fund.

The state justices will hear the Horner case at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 25. Because Timbs and Horner deal with different constitutional issues, Gedge said a ruling in Timbs likely won’t affect the outcome of Horner.

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