Supreme Court Bolsters Right of Owners to Fight Against Police Seizures of Vehicles

The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

February 21, 2019

By David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday strengthened the rights of Americans to fight police seizures of vehicles and property, ruling the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines” applies to states and localities, not just the federal government.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her second day back from cancer surgery delivered the opinion for a unanimous court.

The ruling is a victory for Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man and a former heroin addict whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by police after he was convicted of two drug sales that amounted to about $300.

Since the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, some law enforcement agencies have routinely used their so-called forfeiture power to seize vehicles, boats, homes and businesses that had been used in crimes, including drug trafficking. The Supreme Court has refused to halt these seizures.

But in Wednesday’s ruling, the justices gave owners the right to challenge forfeitures that are “grossly disproportionate” to their crime.

The case of Timbs vs. Indiana also revisited a nearly forgotten era in constitutional law.

Prior to the mid-20th century, most parts of the Bill of Rights were seen as limiting only the federal government, not states. For example, the First Amendment begins by specifically barring “Congress” from making certain kinds of laws.

But in a series of rulings, the high court decided that rights such as freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, right to a jury trial and protection against cruel and unusual punishments were fundamental and therefore must be honored by states and localities as well as the federal government. The court did so by saying these rights were included or “incorporated” into the 14th Amendment, which applied to the states.

But none of those decisions dealt specifically with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines.

When Timbs tried to challenge the seizure of his Land Rover as an excessive fine, he lost when the Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled the U.S. Constitution did not protect him against an excessive fine.

The libertarian Institute of Justice appealed his case to the high court. And there, he had the support of a broad ideological coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

When the case was argued in November, the court’s newest appointees, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M.Kavanaugh, chided Indiana’s state attorney for defending a hopelessly outdated view of the law.

“Here we are in 2018 still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really?” Gorsuch said to Indiana Solicitor Thomas Fisher.

“Isn’t it just too late in the day to argue that any of the Bill of Rights is not incorporated?” Kavanaugh asked.

During her recovery in her Watergate apartment, Ginsburg reported that she was busy working on opinions. And speaking in the courtroom Wednesday, she said the protection against unjust and excessive fines imposed by the government is a fundamental right and is not limited in its scope.

“The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘dee(p) root(s) in (our) history and tradition,’” she wrote. “The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.”

The decision is not a final victory for Timbs. His case now goes back to Indiana, where he can argue that the seizure of his Land Rover was “grossly disproportionate” to his crime and is therefore unconstitutional.

As Ginsburg noted, Timbs was sentenced to one year of home detention for his drug crimes and was ordered to pay $1,203 in fees and court costs. The maximum fine under state law for his conviction was $10,000.

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