In 9-0 ruling, SCOTUS rejects Indiana excessive civil forfeiture

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

A five-year civil forfeiture battle that began in rural Indiana ended Wednesday in the United States Supreme Court, where justices unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines is incorporated to the states via the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. But the high court stopped short of deciding whether the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated as it relates specifically to civil in rem forfeitures, the core dispute of the state litigation.

The Wednesday decision in Tyson Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091 — the first delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg since her cancer surgery last year — vacated a November 2017 Indiana Supreme Court ruling in which the state justices determined the Excessive Fines Clause had not been incorporated to the states. The federal justices disagreed, finding that protection against excessive fines is a longstanding part of the American legal tradition.

“Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and ‘[e]xcessive bail,’ the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal-law-enforcement authority,’” Ginsburg wrote for the unanimous court. “This safeguard, we hold, is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’” deeply rooted in American history and tradition.

At issue in the case was Indiana’s attempt to seize Marion resident Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover SUV. Timbs had purchased the vehicle in 2013 using $42,000 in proceeds he received from his father’s life insurance policy, but after he was convicted on drug and theft charges in 2015, the state argued it could seize the SUV because it had been used to transport heroin.

Both the Grant Superior Court and the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to allow the forfeiture, finding it would be “grossly disproportionate” to Timbs’ crimes. Notably, state statute would only have required Timbs to pay up to $10,000 in fines for his crimes — four times less than the value of the Rover.

But after hearing oral arguments in March 2017, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed both lower courts, finding the Excessive Fines Clause had not been incorporated to the states. However, the justices did not rule on the issue of whether the forfeiture, in Timbs’ case, was excessive.

Likewise, during arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2018, the question before the justices was straightforward: Has the Excessive Fines Clause been incorporated to the states via the 14th Amendment? Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice — which took Timbs’ case after the Indiana Supreme Court decision — answered that question with a “yes,” relying on Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993). Austin held that forfeitures that are at least partially punitive are considered “fines” under the clause in the federal context.

But in her Wednesday decision, Ginsburg said the state rephrased the question as “[w]hether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause restricts States’ use of civil asset forfeitures.” The justice, however, said that question was not properly before the high court, because the state supreme court “nowhere addressed the Clause’s applicability to civil in rem forfeitures.” Thus, SCOTUS rejected the state’s request to overturn Austin.

Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher, who argued the case before the high court, also argued that if the Excessive Fines Clause were incorporated, it would only be incorporated as it applies to in personam, not in rem, proceedings.  In rem proceedings are against property, not a person, and have not traditionally been understood to be subject to the Eighth Amendment protection, Fisher argued.

But the justices declined to reach that issue, with Ginsburg writing that their only task is to determine, generally, if the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause.

“In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a protection contained in the Bill of Rights, we ask whether the right guaranteed — not each and every particular application of that right — is fundamental and deeply rooted,” Ginsburg wrote, referencing as an example the court’s decision in Packingham v. North Carolina, 582 U.S. ___ (2017). “… Similarly here, regardless of whether the application of the Excessive Fines Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted, our conclusion that the Clause is incorporated remains unchanged.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch — who had harsh words for Fisher during his in rem versus in personam argument at the Supreme Court — opined that the appropriate vehicle for incorporation might be the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, not the Due Process Clause.

“But nothing in this case turns on that question, and regardless of the precise vehicle, there can be no serious doubt that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the States to respect the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the Eighth Amendment,” Gorsuch wrote.

In his own concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with Gorsuch that the Privileges and Immunities Clause was the better incorporation vehicle, but he took a more steadfast approach to that view.  

“I agree with the Court that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines fully applicable to the States,” Thomas wrote. “But I 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.”

“The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and from the founding of our country, it has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection,” Thomas continued. “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.”

In a Wednesday press release, the Institute for Justice celebrated the Timbs ruling as “historic,” saying the decision “removed any doubt” about incorporation not just in Indiana, but in all states nationwide.

“Tyson paid his debts to society,” Hottot said in a statement. “He took responsibility for what he did. He is in drug treatment. He is holding down a job. He is staying clean.

“Our hope and goal now is to get back his vehicle from the police so Tyson will have an easier time getting to all the different commitments he has to stay on the straight and narrow,” Hottot said.

Speaking to Indiana Lawyer after the November court hearing, Timbs said he never intended to become the poster child for civil forfeiture reform, and certainly never thought he would take a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But on Wednesday, he reiterated his call for forfeiture reform in light of his favorable ruling.

“Taking my vehicles makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles,” Timbs said in a statement. “To me it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?

“You need a car to do all these things,” Timbs continued. “Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.”

In a statement to Indiana Lawyer, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said he "appreciate(s) the Court's attention to the important issues raised in this case."

"Although we argued for a different outcome," Hill said, "we respect the Court's decision." 

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