Supreme Court Takes Up Case That May Limit Civil Asset Forfeiture

asset forfeitureBy Christopher Zoukis

On November 28, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Timbs v. Indiana, a case which could reshape civil asset forfeiture.

Tyson Timbs, who attended the Court’s oral argument, is an Indiana resident who became addicted to opioids he was taking for chronic pain. To support his habit, he became a low-level drug dealer. When his father died in 2012, Timbs used the proceeds of a life insurance policy to buy a supply of drugs and a new Range Rover LS SUV, in which he transported his inventory.

He was far from successful in his new occupation; tricked by a police informer, he sold $225 worth of heroin to undercover cops. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year’s house arrest and five years of probation, and paid a $1,200 fine (the maximum was $10,000).

Soon after Timbs’ arrest, however, a private law firm brought a civil forfeiture claim for his Range Rover, as state law permitted, claiming that since it was used in committing his crime, it should be forfeited to the state. State law also allows such forfeiture actions to be brought even before, or even without, a criminal conviction.

Some state and local governments derive major revenues from seizing money and property through forfeitures, so the state would gain an almost new SUV (with only 15,000 miles, it was worth $42,000); the law firm acting for the state would get part of the state’s gain and a contingency fee, if successful.

Timbs objected, pointing out the Eighth Amendment, among other things, forbids not only cruel and unusual punishment but also excessive fines and excessive bail. The trial judge agreed, finding the forfeiture excessive, out of reasonable proportion to the value of the drugs he had been convicted of selling or the maximum fine he could have received. The state appealed the decision, but the state court of appeals upheld the trial court. When the state Supreme Court heard the case, however, it reversed, saying the Eighth Amendment standard hadn’t been adopted by the state, a “sovereign” entity not required to follow the federal standard.

Which points up the central issue before the U.S. Supreme Court: is the Eighth Amendment’s bar on excessive fines so fundamental it should apply to states as well as to the federal government, under the “due process” requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment? Over time, the Supreme Court has explicitly ruled nearly every other liberty or property protection contained in the Bill of Rights has been “incorporated” in that way to apply to the states — but up to now hasn’t had a case asking it to decide if the “no excessive fine” provision of the Eighth Amendment applies to states.

Most legal experts believe the Supreme Court will use the Timbs case to decide exactly that. “Friend of the court” briefs supporting Timbs’ position came from diverse interest groups, ranging from the NAACP and ACLU to libertarian organizations and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. In oral argument, nearly all Justice seemed skeptical of Indiana’s position. The key question may be not whether states are covered, but how the court defines the rules that apply.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.