U.S. Supreme Court Rules Unanimously That States Cannot Impose Excessive Fines

Tyson Timbs

Ruling Requires Cities and States—Not Just the Federal Government— To Abide by the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause

JOHN KRAMER, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE

In an historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court this morning held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment protects Americans not just against the federal government, but against states and local authorities too. No matter which state you live in, every level of government must now abide by the federal Constitution’s guarantee that property owners will be safe from excessive fines and forfeitures. “[T]he historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Court, “is overwhelming.”

Indiana resident Tyson Timbs is at the center of this legal fight. His road to the U.S. Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, when he received more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds and bought a new car. For years, Tyson had struggled with drug addiction; a painkiller prescription had escalated to heroin abuse. Soon after buying his new car, Tyson sold four grams of heroin to fund his addiction. The purchasers were undercover officers, and police arrested Tyson. They seized his car too.

Tyson pleaded guilty to one count of drug dealing, which led to house arrest, then probation, and $1,200 in related fees. Most importantly, the arrest was a wake-up call for Tyson. He got his life back on track, holding down a job and taking steps to battle his addiction.

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The State of Indiana was more interested in Tyson’s car, a Land Rover worth $40,000.

Within months of Tyson’s arrest, the state filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit to take title to the Land Rover. But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed.

Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana Supreme Court said, “we will not impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court removed any doubt that the Excessive Fines Clause applies fully to Indiana and every other state. Writing for eight of the Court’s nine Justices, Justice Ginsburg emphasized that, “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, as the Stuarts’ critics learned several centuries ago. Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a State money.’ This concern is scarcely hypothetical” (legal citations omitted).

While reaching the same result as the eight other Justices, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to explain his view that the right to be free from excessive fines applies to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause (rather than the Due Process Clause). Justice Gorsuch also wrote separately to note that the Privileges or Immunities Clause may be “the appropriate vehicle for incorporation.” But “regardless of the precise vehicle,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, “there can be no serious doubt that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the States to respect the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the Eighth Amendment.”

Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, who argued the case on behalf of Timbs, said, “Today’s ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’—where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property then sell it, and keep the profits to fund their departments. This gives them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power and impose excessive fines.”

“Two levels of courts in Indiana ruled that it would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution for local police to take Tyson’s $40,000 vehicle for a crime involving a few hundred dollars,” said Sam Gedge, an Institute for Justice attorney who also represents Tyson. “But the Indiana Supreme Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause doesn’t apply at all to state and local authorities. The U.S. Supreme Court has now reversed that ruling. This is great news for anyone who values the protection of property rights and important constitutional limits on the power of government.”

“Tyson paid his debts to society,” said Hottot. “He took responsibility for what he did. He paid fees. He is in drug treatment. He is holding down a job. He is staying clean. Our hope and goal now is to get back his vehicle from the police so Tyson will have an easier time getting to all the different commitments he has to stay on the straight and narrow.”

Tyson said, “Taking my vehicle makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles. To me it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? You need a car to do all these things. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.”

“Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that almost all of the Bill of Rights applies not just to the federal government, but also to state and local authorities,” said Hottot. “One of the few outlier provisions, however, was the Excessive Fines Clause, which was at issue in this case. Before now, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that two of the three clauses of the Eighth Amendment apply to the states. The Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause protects your body, the Excessive Bail Clause protects your freedom, and the Excessive Fines Clause protects your property from unreasonable fines and forfeitures. The Supreme Court has now made it clear that the entire Eighth Amendment applies to governments at every level, so every American’s rights are protected.”

“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. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one. We are grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court established that the U.S. Constitution secures meaningful protections for private property and limits the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”

“Today’s decision was the Court’s first opportunity to reexamine this doctrine in over 20 years,” said IJ Senior Attorney Darpana Sheth, who also leads the Institute’s Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “We hope it will be the first in a series of cases that the Court takes on to fundamentally reconsider the constitutionality of civil forfeiture.”


John E. Kramer is Vice President for Communications at the Institute for Justice.


Used with the permission of the Institute for Justice.