Timbs v. Indiana (2019)
In Timbs v. Indiana (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies not only to the federal government but also to the states, thus limiting state and local government discretion via further incorporation of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Tyson Timbs was convicted in state court for selling $225 of illegal drugs, and, among other penalties, fined $1,200. At the time of his arrest, the local police had seized his vehicle, which he had purchased for about $42,000. Timbs paid for the vehicle with proceeds from a life insurance policy following his father’s death.
Indiana filed a civil lawsuit for forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, alleging he had used the vehicle to transport heroin. The trial court ruled in Timbs’s favor, noting that the value of the vehicle was more than four times the maximum fine allowable for his offense. The court held that the forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the offense and thus unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed on grounds that the Excessive Fines Clause constrained only federal, not state, action.
Writing for the U.S. Supreme Court Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg framed the question as whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an “incorporated” protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Eighth Amendment states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The Court noted that like the Eighth Amendment’s prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail, the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of governmental authority. The Court declared that the safeguard is fundamental and has deep roots in the nation’s history and tradition. Indiana argued that the Excessive Fines Clause did not apply to its use of civil in rem forfeitures (that is, forfeitures against property) because the Clause’s specific application to such forfeitures is neither fundamental nor deeply rooted. The Court rejected this argument by pointing to an earlier case, Austin v. United States (1993), which held that civil in rem forfeitures fall within the Clause’s protection when they are at least partially punitive.
Justice Ginsburg continued that a primary concern with excessive fines is how they can be used to curtail other freedoms: “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.” The Court also pointed out that the fundamental nature of the right is widespread: all 50 states prohibit excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality to the offense. The Court concluded that the Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applicable to state action.
Michael J. Duffy, “A Drug War Funded with Drug Money: The Federal Civil Forfeiture Statute and Federalism,” Suffolk University Law Review 34:3 (2001): 511-540; Victor E. Hartman, “Implementing an Asset Forfeiture Program,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 70:1 (2001): 1-7; Alice W. Dery, “Overview of Asset Forfeiture,” Business Law Today (June 2012): 1-5; Brent Skorup, “Ensuring Eighth Amendment Protection from Excessive Fines in Civil Asset Forfeiture Cases,” George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal 22:3 (2012)): 427-458; Brent Ashley, “Uncivil Asset Forfeiture: An Analysis of Civil Asset Forfeiture and Virginia H.B 48,” Richmond Public Interest Law Review 20:3 (2017): 293-304; and Vanita Saleema Snow, “From the Dark Tower: Unbridled Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Drexel Law Review 10:1 (2017): 69-126.
Lance A. Cooper
Last Updated: November 2019