Constitutional Law

Supreme Court to decide if excessive fines clause applies to states in seized SUV case

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Radu Bercan/

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday accepted a case that could curb the use of civil forfeiture by the states and involves a small-time drug dealer’s forfeited Land Rover.

At issue in Timbs v. Indiana is whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states through the 14th Amendment, according to the cert petition and SCOTUSblog.

The cert petition says the issue is more pressing now than ever, given the surge in punitive fines and forfeitures at the state level.

The Indiana Supreme Court had allowed the state to proceed with plans to seize the $40,000 Land Rover LR2 in an opinion that said the Supreme Court has not applied the excessive fines clause to the states. Indiana is in the minority, according to the cert petition. At least 14 state high courts apply the clause to the states, while Indiana and three others do not.

Petitioner Tyson Timbs had used life insurance proceeds to buy the vehicle. He had used the car to sell heroin to undercover officers for $225, and had walked to a second transaction where he sold $160 worth of heroin. He was on the way to another drug sale when he was pulled over. No heroin was found in the vehicle. Timbs later told police he and his companion had thought about taking the money and driving away.

The Land Rover was seized. Timbs pleaded guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and felony conspiracy to commit theft. The state sought forfeiture of the Land Rover.

The maximum penalty for Timbs’ offense was $10,000. A state appeals court said forfeiture of the Land Rover was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’ offense, but the state supreme court reversed.

According to the cert petition, Timbs had turned to heroin after he became addicted to hydrocodone, and he sold drugs to support his habit.

The Supreme Court has gradually applied the Bill of Rights to the states using the 14th Amendment. The most recent case was McDonald v. City of Chicago, which held in June 2010 that the Second Amendment applies to the states, the New Republic reported in an April preview of the Timbs case. The majority opinion in McDonald noted that the Supreme Court had yet to rule on whether two clauses applied to the states: the Third Amendment ban on quartering soldiers in homes, and the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines.

Timbs is represented by the Institute for Justice, according to a press release.

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