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  • António Júlio C. Nunes

Supreme Court decides Timbs v. Indiana. What happens next?

On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court decided the case of Timbs v. Indiana, which posed the question of whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is incorporated to the states. The Supreme Court said that it did. What the Supreme Court’s answer left out are the consequences for Mr. Timbs case and the impact that this decision might have on civil forfeiture laws across the country.

Mr. Timbs’ case began after he pleaded guilty to one felony count of dealing. The Indiana state trial court sentenced him to one-year home detention and five-years’ probation. Mr. Timbs was also ordered to pay $1,200 in probation fees, as well as court and police costs. Indiana then filed suit to seize his Land Rover LR2, valued at $42,000, which he had used to drive himself to drug buys. He bought his car from the life-insurance proceeds that he received as a result of his father’s death.

Mr. Timbs argued that the seizure of his car was excessive because the maximum fine that he could get from his drug conviction under Indiana law was $10,000 and his car was valued at four times that amount. The Indiana state trial court agreed with him. The Indiana Supreme Court, without addressing Mr. Timbs’ argument, reversed because it held that the Excessive Fines Clause is not applicable to the states. Now that the Supreme Court has reversed the Indiana Supreme Court, the issue of whether the seizure of his Land Rover is excessive under the Excessive Fines Clause goes back down to the lower courts for resolution.

One question the Supreme Court left open is how the Excessive Fines Clause gets interpreted. Mr. Timbs’ lawyer argued that an excessiveness test should take into account the individual’s circumstances and the crime in question. It appears as though Justice Ginsberg might have agreed with that interpretation, stating that the “Magna Carta required that economic sanctions ‘be proportioned to the wrong’ and ‘not be so large as to deprive an offender of his livelihood.’” However, because the Supreme Court did not address an appropriate test, any formulation by the Supreme Court of how the Excessive Fines Clause gets applied in individual cases will have to wait.

Some states have already started tackling the application of the Excessive Fines Clause. For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, by ruling prior to Timbs, that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the state, held that courts must consider “whether the forfeiture would deprive the property owner of his or her livelihood, i.e., his current or future ability to earn a living.” Civil forfeiture reform advocates hope the result reached in Pennsylvania can now be found in other states as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Timbs.

Another question left open by the Supreme Court’s decision is what the impact would be on civil forfeiture laws across the country. Some attorneys have stated that the decision will not stop civil forfeiture across the board, but that it does put jurisdictions on notice about any bad actors who want to seize property that is wildly disproportionate to the offense. These bad actors are typically referred to in the context of “policing for profit,” an instance when law enforcement is allowed under local law to keep the proceeds of the property they seize pursuant to civil forfeiture laws for themselves.

There are some signs that the attention Mr. Timbs’ case has garnered has been leading some states to take a serious look at their civil forfeiture laws. The Indiana General Assembly passed a civil forfeiture reform package in 2018 designed to provide due process protections for those whose property is seized. Additionally, last summer, the city of San Francisco repealed its locally-imposed criminal-justice fees as part of a defendant’s sentence.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana has focused the attention on civil forfeiture laws across the country. Time can only tell what the impact of this decision will have on legislatures and courts around the country. It appears as though the process is already in full swing.

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