THE SUPREME COURT took one small step Wednesday toward potentially redressing a big constitutional outrage: the pervasive and unjust forfeiture systems that states and localities have used to deprive even innocent people of their property.
The court ruled unanimously for Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man who pleaded guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to a year of home detention and five years of probation, yet state authorities did not stop there. Under a process separate from the criminal proceedings, known as civil asset forfeiture, they also moved to seize his $42,000 Land Rover, which he bought with money from an insurance payout he received when his father died. In civil asset forfeiture cases, law enforcement officers target property, such as a sport utility vehicle, suspected of being connected to a crime, and the standards they must meet to complete a seizure are lower than in criminal prosecutions. In the case of Mr. Timbs, Indiana authorities claimed he used his Land Rover to transport heroin.
An Indiana state court denied the forfeiture request, ruling that seizing Mr. Timbs’s $42,000 vehicle in connection to a crime for which the maximum criminal fine is $10,000 would be “grossly disproportionate” and a violation of the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines. From there, legal arguments proceeded on whether the U.S. Constitution’s excessive-fines clause applies to state matters. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that it does.
The ruling is narrow. It does not mean state and federal authorities may no longer seek to seize property they suspect of being connected to a crime. The high court has not deemed that practice unconstitutional, in part because it has a long history of use in the United States. Forfeiture was originally employed to seize the ships of pirates and smugglers, who were often absent from U.S. territory. The only way to get to them was to take their property.
But Wednesday’s decision does mean that, if and when the court begins to curb civil asset forfeiture, the standards and restrictions it sets on the federal level would apply with equal strength to the states.
There is a strong argument that curbs are needed. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote of a 2017 case 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. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Tex., regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights.” In one case, he noted, “they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money.”
State and local governments should not have wide authority to profit from their policing. Eventually, once a suitable case comes before it, the court must say so.