On Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously to limit law enforcement’s ability to seize property in criminal cases especially when that property is used to enrich the agency’s own bank account under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The case is called Timbs v. Indiana1 (citation yet to be released). In it, the Court found that there are limitations on the forfeiture of seized property including cash, even though the property is associated with criminal activity.
In the case, the Appellant, Mr. Timbs, had been arrested and found guilty of a low-level drug offense involving about $400.00 in illegal narcotics. Under Indiana state law, law enforcement seized the vehicle he was driving, a 2012 Land Rover, worth approximately $42,000.00 under the theory that the vehicle was being used to transport heroin which he had then sold to an undercover police officer. Timbs, who had pled guilty to the offense, challenged the forfeiture of the vehicle on the grounds that the seizure was “grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his crime.” The forfeiture was in excess of four time the maximum fine that could be imposed for the criminal conduct.
As the case made its way through the Indiana court system, the issue of contention centered on whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applied to only the Federal Government or could it also apply at the state level. Writing for the other justices, Justice Ginsburg clearly stated that the limitation applies to the states. She wrote, “the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone ‘of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’ – is ‘overwhelming.’
The implication that this case has for criminal cases is clear. Some estimates claim that State of Florida Law Enforcement Agencies forfeited over $117 million in currency, real property and vehicles between 2009 and 2014, or about $19.5 million a year.2 However, the true impact of the ruling could be felt by everyone. Those funds were used for supplies, salaries, and other essentials for the running of the agencies. Will those costs now be transferred to tax payers? If agencies have begun to rely on those amounts in their budgets what do they do now to make up the short fall? Equally intriguing is the implications the rulings may have in civil case such as code enforcement proceedings and other administrative proceedings? Does the Eight Amendment limitation apply to local governments in civil takings? As many law enforcement agencies are extension of local government, the argument would seem to lean in that direction.
While the Timbs’ case seems to have limited extent on its face, like so many of the Court’s ruling the potential precedent could have a wide influence. Only the time will tell how the case will impact the rights of citizens versus state and local governments.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy