WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared ready to extend the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines to the states, a decision that could curtail the practice of civil asset forfeitures.
The case involved an Indiana man, Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by police after his 2013 arrest for selling roughly $400 worth of heroin to undercover agents.
Timbs was sentenced to a year of home detention and five years’ probation along with court costs and fines of about $1,200. The Land Rover was not returned. Timbs appealed, arguing that the court’s decision to keep the vehicle constituted a violation of the Bill of Rights’ ban on excessive fines.
Indiana’s top court sided with the trial court, arguing the Supreme Court had never explicitly stated that the excessive-fine prohibition applied to states, only the federal government.
Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher argued that point on Wednesday but found little sympathy from the justices.
“Here we are in 2018 still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General,” Gorsuch said.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with Gorsuch, saying it appeared “too late in the day” to suggest that states are exempt from the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.
Other justices questioned the inherent fairness and implications of civil asset forfeitures, which state and local governments have used to inject revenue into budgets without raising taxes.
“If we look at these forfeitures that are occurring today,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “many of them are grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged.”
Justice Stephen Breyer noted the slippery slope of civil asset forfeitures, saying that police could plausibly seize a person’s sports car for exceeding the speed limit by a few miles per hour.
A ruling in the case, Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091, is expected by the end of June 2019.