The Supreme Court today ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states. The decision is a victory for an Indiana man whose luxury SUV was seized after he pleaded guilty to selling heroin. It is also a blow to state and local governments, for whom fines and forfeitures have become an important source of funds.
The case began back in 2015, when Tyson Timbs sold heroin to an undercover police officer. He pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to one year of home detention, living with his aunt, followed by five years on probation. The state court also ordered Timbs to forfeit his 2012 Land Rover, which he had purchased for approximately $42,000 with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy, on the theory that he had used the car to transport drugs.
Timbs challenged the forfeiture of his Land Rover as a violation of the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, and a state trial court agreed. It reasoned that because the SUV was worth four times more than the maximum fine that the state could impose, requiring Timbs to forfeit it would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of Timbs’ crime.
An intermediate appeals court upheld that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. It ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court has never specifically said that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines – part of the Bill of Rights, which was originally interpreted as applying only to the federal government – applies to the states.
Timbs asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, and today the justices held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines does indeed apply to the states. In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court seemed to regard the basic question before it as an easy one. The justices explained that the “historical and logical case for concluding that” the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – is “overwhelming.”
Even Indiana, the court noted, did not seriously challenge whether the ban on excessive fines applies to the states. Instead, it argued that the ban applies only to payments imposed as punishment and does not apply to this case, which involves the forfeiture of property used to violate the law, a procedure that was not traditionally regarded as a fine. But because the state did not make that argument in the Indiana Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized today, the court would not consider it. And it doesn’t matter whether the ban on excessive forfeitures of property was traditionally regarded as fundamental, the court explained; what matters is that the broader right to be protected from excessive fines has been regarded that way.
Justice Clarence Thomas agreed that the ban on excessive fines applies to the states, but he would have reached that result in a different way. Instead of relying on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, Thomas would hold that the ban on excessive fines is “one of the ‘privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States’ protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Justice Neil Gorsuch echoed that thought in a separate opinion, but (unlike Thomas) he joined the court’s opinion, stressing that “nothing in the case turns on that question, and, regardless of the precise vehicle, there can be no serious doubt that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the States to respect the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the Eighth Amendment.”
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.