Majority justices remand Land Rover forfeiture case for excessiveness analysis

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Tyson Timbs and the Institute for Justice. 

An Indiana civil forfeiture case that made its way to the United States Supreme Court will now return to the Grant Superior Court after the Indiana Supreme Court developed a framework for determining if the forfeiture of property is excessive under the Eighth Amendment.

Justices revisited State of Indiana v. Tyson Timbs, 27S04-1702-MI-70, in June on remand from SCOTUS, which unanimously ruled in February that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states through the 14th Amendment, reversing the Indiana Supreme Court’s prior ruling.

In its first Timbs decision, the state Supreme Court allowed the state to move forward with plans to seize Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover — worth more than $40,000 — because the federal Supreme Court had not specifically ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause had been incorporated to the states. The state justices’ November 2017 decision came after both the Grant Superior Court and a divided Indiana Court of Appeals denied the state’s forfeiture request.

Timbs’ legal troubles had begun after he was arrested and eventually convicted of felony dealing and conspiracy to commit theft. He had developed an addiction to heroin after being prescribed hydrocodone.

“Timbs would obtain heroin by regularly driving his Land Rover sixty to ninety miles to meet his supplier,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote Monday. “These trips accounted for most of the 16,000 miles Timbs put on the vehicle over four months.

“Eventually, a confidential informant told police officers on a drug task force that Timbs would possibly sell heroin,” Rush continued. “Timbs had never sold before, but the officers devised a controlled-buy plan.”

The controlled buys led to Timbs’ convictions, and after proceeding through state court, he took his case to Washington, D.C., last November, represented by the Virginia-based Institute for Justice.

As with its first Timbs ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court on Monday did not decide on remand whether the forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle is excessive. But the court did determine that the forfeiture — pursued under Indiana Code § 34-24-1-1(a)(1)(A) — is a “fine” under the Eighth Amendment, relying on Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993), to reach that conclusion.

The excessiveness question was instead left to the Grant Superior Court, though the majority justices — including justices Steven David, Mark Massa and Christopher Goff — did develop a framework for trial courts to use when evaluating a forfeiture under the Eighth Amendment. In developing that framework, the majority looked to SCOTUS precedent from Austin and United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998).

Rejecting the state’s argument that the excessiveness question turns only on whether the property was an instrumentality of the crime, the majority instead held that “the Excessive Fines Clause includes both an instrumentality limitation and a proportionality one for use-based in rem fines.” That holding is supported by precedent, history and the text of the Excessive Fines Clause, the court said.

“Specifically, to stay within the bounds of the Excessive Fines Clause, a use-based fine must meet two requirements: (1) the property must be the actual means by which an underlying offense was committed; and (2) the harshness of the forfeiture penalty must not be grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense and the claimant’s culpability for the property’s misuse,” Rush wrote.

A use-based fine will be considered excessive if the property was not an instrumentality of the underlying crimes, the majority held. The relevant crimes “are those on which the State bases its forfeiture case.”

In this case, the court determined Timbs’ Land Rover was an instrumentality of his crimes based on the fact that he drove the vehicle to one of the controlled buys.

The majority then adopted a gross-disproportionality standard for reviewing civil forfeitures under the Eighth Amendment. That standard considers three non-exclusive factors, Rush said: the harshness of the punishment, including the property owner’s economic means; the severity of the offenses; and the claimant’s culpability.

This standard, however, is different than the gross disproportionality standard used with the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, Rush added.

In remanding the case for an excessiveness analysis using this framework, the majority instructed the trial court to “determine whether Timbs has overcome his burden to establish that the harshness of the forfeiture’s punishment is not only disproportional, but grossly disproportional, to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the Land Rover’s corresponding criminal use.”

But Justice Geoffrey Slaughter — the author of the court’s first Timbs ruling — dissented, saying he would “embrace the State’s proposed rule, which asks whether the forfeited asset was the instrumentality of a crime.”

“In my view,” Slaughter wrote, “that is where the excessiveness inquiry under the Eighth Amendment begins and ends — at least until the Supreme Court tells us otherwise.”

Further, Slaughter said the majority’s ruling does not give trial court guidance on how to apply the newly created framework.

“Personally, I have no idea what today’s test means for Timbs’s excessiveness claims,” he said. “Instead of remanding for further proceedings, we should apply our test and declare a winner.

“… Applying this analysis,” Slaughter continued, “I would hold that the State’s forfeiture was not excessive under the Eight Amendment.”

In a Monday news release, the Institute for Justice celebrated the majority’s decision as a “path-marking ruling.”

“The Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized that the Excessive Fines Clause is a vital protection against unjust economic sanctions,” IJ attorney Sam Gedge said. “Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights today, and the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling marks an important step in curbing the worst abuse in this area. We look forward to enforcing the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in the trial court and getting Tyson’s property back.”

Timbs has previously told Indiana Lawyer that he is no longer sure where the Land Rover is being held. In a statement released through the Institute for Justice, the Marion man said the court’s decision “is important not just for me, but for thousands of people who are caught up in Indiana’s forfeiture machine.”

“To me, it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away my vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” Timbs said. “Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.”

“Tyson paid his debts to society,” Wesley Hottot, the IJ senior attorney who argued on Timbs’ behalf at SCOTUS, added. “He took responsibility for what he did. He paid fees. He is in drug treatment. He is holding down a job. He is staying clean.

“Our hope and goal now,” Hottot continued, “is to finally 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.”

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