U.S. Supreme Court Curbs State Power to Levy Fines, Seize Property

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court curbed the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property, siding with a man trying to keep his Land Rover after he pleaded guilty to selling drugs.

The unanimous ruling marks the first time the court has said states and cities are bound by the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, part of the Eighth Amendment. The ruling limits what critics say is an increasingly common and abusive government practice of using fines and forfeitures to raise revenue.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had been away from the court for almost two months after undergoing lung cancer surgery, wrote the opinion and read a summary of it from the bench. She said protections against excessive fines are “fundamental” and date back to Magna Carta, the 1215 document that curbed the power of the English king.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” she wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”

UPS Fine

Civil-liberty and business groups alike were urging the court to crack down on state and local governments. The American Civil Liberties Union said the increasing use of fines and forfeitures is often coming at the expense of people who can’t afford to pay. The group said 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures as of 2017.

The U.S Chamber of Commerce said businesses are frequently being forced to pay unreasonable fines. The chamber pointed to $247 million won by the city and state of New York in a case against United Parcel Service Inc. over shipments of untaxed cigarettes and to what the group said were duplicative awards against a Johnson & Johnson unit over the marketing of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal.

The case before the court involved Tyson Timbs, who bought his Land Rover for $42,000 in January 2013, a few months before police in Indiana arrested him for selling $385 of heroin in two transactions. Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation.

Timbs, who says he sold heroin to pay for what started as an opioid addiction, says the forfeiture of the vehicle was disproportionate to the $10,000 maximum fine he faced for his crimes. The Land Rover, which he was driving when he was arrested, had about 17,000 miles on the odometer when police seized it.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the state courts in Indiana to decide whether officials went too far in Timbs’s case.

‘Straight and Narrow’

“Today’s ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’ -- where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property then sell it, and keep the profits to fund their departments,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the advocacy group Institute for Justice who represented Timbs.

Hottot said that reclaiming his vehicle would help Timbs “stay on the straight and narrow.” Timbs is now in drug treatment and holding a job, Hottot added.

Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment was originally aimed only at the federal government. Starting in the 1960s, the court began “incorporating” many of those rights into the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which binds the states.

The court said in 2010 that the Second Amendment is incorporated, letting people challenge gun laws at the local and state levels. The 5-4 decision said the right to bear arms was “among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”

Thomas Opinion

Ginsburg said the excessive fines clause met the standard laid out in the gun case. “The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the excessive fines clause is overwhelming,” she wrote.

Although the outcome was unanimous, Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t join Ginsburg’s opinion, writing separately to say he would have relied on a separate part of the Constitution -- the privileges or immunities clause -- to apply the excessive fines clause to the states.

Indiana contended that the excessive fines clause doesn’t apply when a state files a forfeiture case aimed at property that was used to commit a crime. The state said such forfeitures have been a feature of American law for hundreds of years.

“We appreciate the court’s attention to the important issues raised in this case,” Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said in an emailed statement. “Although we argued for a different outcome, we respect the court’s decision.”

The Eighth Amendment says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court has already ruled that the bail and punishment provisions are incorporated.

The case is Timbs v. Indiana, 17-10.

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