U.S. Supreme Court Deals Blow to Excess Fines, Asset Forfeiture

U.S. Supreme Court Deals Blow to Excess Fines, Asset Forfeiture

WASHINGTON, D.C. (IRN) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s protections against excessive fines and penalties apply to states and local governments that have used asset forfeiture to boost their budgets.

The court ruled Wednesday that the state of Indiana couldn’t keep Tyson Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover. Police seized the vehicle claiming Timbs used it to transport heroin. The Institute for Justice represented the man in court, arguing that “policing for profit” was unconstitutional.

“[T]he historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

She said the root of this portion of the Eighth Amendment was that exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.

“The excessive fines clause in the Eighth Amendment is a vital check on the government’s power to punish people,” said Institute for Justice attorney Sam Gedge, adding that police departments have a profit motive for asset forfeiture. “There’s a built-in incentive often for law enforcement to take as much property as they can get because they stand to benefit financially.”

He said the ruling won’t do away with all asset forfeiture, but will now require judges to weigh the value of the property being taken against the severity of the crime.

“The standard is something like ‘is the fine grossly disproportionate to the property owners offense,’ ” Gedge said.

Illinois passed laws in 2017 that put safeguards in place to protect property owners from civil asset forfeiture abuse. A week before those protections were put into place, LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne was indicted on charges alleging he used an asset forfeiture program as a personal slush fund.