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Supreme Court limits power of states and localities to impose fines, seize property

The Supreme Court on Feb. 20 ruled that states cannot levy “excess fines.” The decision could curb property seizures in the criminal justice system. (Video: Reuters)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose financial penalties and seize property.

The decision delighted critics of civil asset forfeiture, who welcomed the ruling as a new weapon in their war against what has been labeled “policing for profit” — the practice of seizing cash, cars and other property from those convicted, or even suspected, of committing a crime.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her second day back on the bench after undergoing cancer surgery in December, announced the court’s decision, saying the Eighth Amendment’s excessive-fines clause protects against government retribution at all levels.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, an aggressive brand of policing called “highway interdiction,” which involves authorities seizing money and property during traffic stops, has grown in popularity. Thousands of people not charged with crimes are left fighting legal battles to regain their money.  (Video: Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

He sold drugs and Indiana seized his car. Does the Constitution protect him?

Groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned the Supreme Court of abuses, with the chamber touting a national study that found “60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a ‘necessary’ part of their budget.”

The case at the court involved Tyson Timbs of Marion, Ind., whose $42,000 Land Rover SUV was seized after his 2015 arrest for selling a couple hundred dollars’ worth of heroin. Timbs has sued to get it back, and while Wednesday’s decision did not dictate that outcome, it gave him a new day in court.

“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” said Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one.”

The ACLU’s brief said that in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures. It described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California carried an additional $390 in fees, and how New Jersey’s fine of $100 for marijuana possession could lead to a penalty of more than $1,000 for a poor person represented by a public defender.

Some justices, too, had become worried about the state and local practices.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a recent opinion that civil forfeitures have “become widespread and highly profitable.”

“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,” Thomas wrote, referring to reporting by the New Yorker, and an investigative series in The Washington Post that chronicled how aggressive policing tactics resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars being taken from motorists not charged with crimes.

The issue has been divisive at the federal level as well. During his tenure, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., a Democrat, restricted the Department of Justice’s reliance on civil asset forfeitures, but Republican Jeff Sessions, Holder’s successor, championed the program. A bipartisan group of senators objected to the Sessions initiative.

Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes

But those issues were largely missing in Ginsburg’s crisp nine-page opinion. The issue, Institute for Justice lawyer Wesley Hottot said at oral argument in the case, was a simple matter of “constitutional housekeeping.”

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects against actions of the federal government. But the Supreme Court over time has applied its provisions to state and local governments under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. In 2010, for instance, the court held that the Second Amendment applied to state and local government laws on gun control.

The Eighth Amendment states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Two of those commands — regarding bail and cruel and unusual punishments — have been deemed to apply to state and local governments. But until now, the ban on excessive fines had not.

The Indiana Supreme Court was among a handful of state high courts that had said that part of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to state actions.

Timbs provided the test case. The factory worker said in an interview before the Supreme Court hearing that he became reliant on painkillers after a foot injury. He moved from Ohio to Marion, Ind., to live with his aunt and to try to make a fresh start.

With money he received from a life insurance policy after his father’s death, Timbs bought the Land Rover. “The rest of the money I spent on drugs,” he said. When that ran out, he undertook the small-time heroin dealing.

After he pleaded guilty to selling to an undercover agent, Timbs was sentenced to home detention, probation and a court-supervised treatment program for addiction.

Indiana then hired a private law firm to file a lawsuit forcing Timbs to forfeit the car, under a state law that allows seizure of vehicles used “to facilitate violation of a criminal statute.”

Timbs sued to get the car back, and a judge agreed, citing the excessive-fines clause and saying “forfeiture of the Land Rover . . . was grossly disproportionate to the gravity” of the crime. He noted the maximum monetary penalty for Timbs’s crime was $10,000.

But the Indiana Supreme Court held that the excessive-fines clause did not apply to the states. Citing Indiana’s status as “a sovereign state within our federal system,” the court said it would not “impose federal obligations on the state that the federal government itself has not mandated.”

Three other states — Michigan, Mississippi and Montana — also take that position.

The Supreme Court’s opinion Wednesday does not take a position on whether Indiana’s seizure of the Land Rover was excessive. It holds only that the Indiana Supreme Court was wrong to say that the Eighth Amendment did not apply.

But Ginsburg noted the lower court’s finding that the value of Timbs’s vehicle was “more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction.”

Ginsburg’s opinion said that the excessive-fines clause is incorporated to apply to state and local governments under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, the traditional way the court makes such decisions. Justices Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch agreed with the outcome but said they would have relied on a different part of the 14th Amendment.

The case is Timbs v. Indiana.