Supreme Court hears case with potential impact on civil forfeiture laws across the country
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, which poses the question of whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. While the legal issue in this case has been framed as one concerning the constitutional doctrine of incorporation, observers have instead commented on the impact that this case could potentially have on civil forfeiture laws across the country.
In a nutshell, civil forfeiture laws allow the state and federal government to seize assets and property that have been suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Proponents of civil forfeiture argue that it is necessary because it allows the government to seize the assets used in organized crime and the illicit drug trade. It stymies the ability of those in organized crime and in the illicit drug trade to continue with their criminal activities. Opponents argue that civil forfeiture laws have been applied arbitrarily and that when applied, it is used to target primarily the poor and minority communities. Additionally, because this proceeding is civil, as opposed to criminal, most jurisdictions simply require the government to prove that the property or assets to be seized were used in a criminal activity under the standard of probable cause. It is a much less stringent standard than what is applied in the criminal proceeding. Critics argue that because of this lower standard, defendants are actually presumed to be guilty instead of innocent, and that the proceeding lacks due process protections for defendants.
Mr. Timbs’ case is a story that touches on various problems currently affecting the country. Mr. Timbs became addicted to hydrocodone, an opioid medication prescribed to him for a work-related injury. He could no longer find pills on the street so he began to use heroin. He had moved to Indiana from Ohio in an attempt to rebuild his life. He achieved success in overcoming his addiction. However, after his father died, Mr. Timbs began using heroin again. Mr. Timbs received around $73,000 in life-insurance proceeds from his father’s death. He used about $42,000 of the proceeds to purchase a Land Rover and some of the rest of the funds to buy heroin. When his money ran out, Mr. Timbs began to look for ways to fund his addiction. Unbeknownst to him, he had arranged two drug transactions with undercover police officers. While he was driving to complete a third transaction, he was pulled over and arrested. His Land Rover was seized.
After Mr. Timbs pled guilty to one count of dealing in a Schedule I controlled substance and to one count conspiracy to commit theft, a private law firm filed a case on behalf of the state of Indiana to forfeit his Land Rover. During an evidentiary hearing for the civil forfeiture request, the court found that he purchased the Land Rover legally but that he used it to transport heroin. The court determined that the forfeiture would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of Mr. Timbs’ offense and thus unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.
It is evident in this case that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is determinative of whether Mr. Timbs would have to forfeit his Land Rover to the state. But whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment can be used to correct some of the concerns of opponents of civil forfeiture laws remains to be seen. The issue remains that states are free to legislate the parameters of how civil forfeiture laws are enforced in their respective states. Some states, like Maine and North Dakota, require that seized funds go into neutral accounts, to prevent mishandling and abuses of these funds by law enforcement. Other states, such New Mexico, have completely abolished their civil forfeiture laws. The question of how states enforce and manage their civil forfeiture laws is likely a question to be addressed by the states themselves. However, whether civil forfeiture laws across the country are governed by the protections of the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment Clause should be answered soon enough by the Supreme Court.