The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in a case involving civil forfeiture of property used in the commission of a crime that will be of interest to municipal police departments. Timbs v. Indiana (USSCT Feb. 20, 2019).
The case involved a challenge to a State of Indiana’s seizure of Timb’s Land Rover SUV after Timbs plead guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, and assessed fees and costs. In addition, the State brought a civil suit for forfeiture of Timb’s SUV. The trial court denied the requested forfeiture, finding that the vehicle was recently purchased for $42,000, which was more than four times the maximum fine that could be imposed for the crime. The State appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail) prohibited this particular forfeiture.
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the history of the “Excessive Fines Clause” of the 8th Amendment , and determined that the clause does apply to civil forfeiture actions such as Indiana’s as the 8th Amendment is incorporated into the 14th Amendment. As a result, the majority of the Court remanded the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court to determine whether the state’s seizure of Timb’s SUV violated that clause.
The majority opinion (authored by Justice Ginsburg) is quite brief, but there were also a number of concurring opinions that went into greater detail about the 8th and 14th Amendments. Although the Justices gave different reasons for their opinions, they all agreed that the civil forfeiture procedure is subject to federal constitutional protections.