Supreme Court Limits Civil Asset Forfeiture, Rules Excessive Fines Apply To States

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 21, 2019 8:10 am

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, thus limiting their ability to use fines to raise revenue.

The court's decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was announced by her on her second day back at the court. Ginsburg missed in-person arguments at the court for the first time in her quarter century on the Supreme Court bench after undergoing surgery for lung cancer late last year.

The court's opinion came in the case of Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by the state of Indiana after he was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin to undercover cops for $400.

An Indiana trial court ruled that the fine was grossly disproportionate punishment on top of other fines and a year of house detention. The state Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines does not apply to the states.

But Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court, open during a snowstorm, disagreed with the Indiana Supreme Court.

"Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs's offense," Ginsburg wrote.

She also noted that the ban on excessive fines was added to the Bill of Rights for the purpose of protecting individual liberty. "Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties."

She noted that those fines could be used to retaliate against political enemies and have been used as a source of revenue.

The ruling effectively means states and local municipalities cannot use fines as a mechanism for raising revenue, something many local governments do.

As for the snow, it's not unusual for the high court to be open when the rest of Washington is closed. It's sort of a tradition.

The last two chief justices were raised in the snowy Midwest, and the justices seem to enjoy being the hardiest branch of government.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems intent on showing the world that she is back - back from lung cancer surgery in late December, back after missing six days of oral arguments in early January and back being a player, even if she is in the court's liberal minority. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: On Tuesday, as the court returned from a midwinter break, Ginsburg was on the bench and the first to ask a question during oral arguments. The tiny, 85-year-old justice even seemed to sit straighter in her seat. On Wednesday, Ginsburg was in the public eye again, announcing an opinion, declaring for the first time that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies not just to the federal government but to state and local governments as well.

The unanimous ruling could have a significant impact on some parts of the country, where hefty fines are imposed to raise money to fund local governments, something that the court seemed to say is forbidden. The court's ruling came in the case of Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by the state of Indiana after he was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin to undercover cops for $400.

TYSON TIMBS: They took my truck immediately. They took that the night that I was arrested. And they've had it ever since.

TOTENBERG: After a trial judge ruled the fine grossly disproportionate to the offense, the state Supreme Court ruled that didn't matter because it said the ban on excessive fines does not apply to the states. On Wednesday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the court, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Founding Fathers adopted the excessive fines ban for good reason. It has been a constant shield against those who, in the past, have used it to punish political enemies or to raise revenues, she said.

Indeed, she observed, one of the reasons the 14th Amendment was enacted after the Civil War was to nullify the laws adopted in many southern states that imposed big fines on newly freed slaves - fines they could not pay, thus forcing them into involuntary labor. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.