Excessive Fines, Car Forfeiture and RBG; Timbs v. Indiana

The Supreme Court, led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rendered a decision that incorporates another federal constitutional amendment's applicability to the state. The Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Unlike other forms of punishment that impose costs on government, fines create revenue.

Until Timbs v. Indiana, 138 S. Ct. 2650 (2018) (“Timbs”), the Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) “never…decided whether…the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to the States through the Due Process Clause.” The case will be remanded so that the lower court can decide whether the taking should be considered excessive and thus in violation of the United States Constitution.

While all fifty states have a prohibition against the imposition of excessive fines, Timbs is characterized as “a sweeping ruling that strengthens property rights and could limit controversial police seizures, such as those done through civil forfeiture, nationwide.” Its application to the states in Timbs, like Supreme Court Decisions such as Mapp v. Ohio (4th Amendment) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2nd Amendment), should reverberate the message that states cannot police for profit and unconstitutional governmental fines and seizures will be challenged.

Petitioner Tyson Timbs was a first-time offender suspected of drug sale. After “Timbs … pleaded guilty….Indiana moved to forfeit the car he was driving when he was arrested: a $42,000 Land Rover, which he had bought with money from his father’s life insurance policy.” In addition to a punishment and the fines Tyson Timbs paid, Indiana utilized civil forfeiture after the guilty plea to obtain the car; however, as noted by others, “[v]ery often, law enforcement will seize assets of the accused without an actual conviction.” This case will very likely open the doors to litigation of Excessive Fines through the United States' District Court.

The Excessive Fines Clause was taken verbatim from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. “One of the main purposes of the ban on excessive fines was to prevent the King from assessing unpayable fines to keep his enemies in debtor’s prison.”[v] The Supreme Court in Browning-Ferris observed that “that the [Excessive Fines] Clause derives from limitations in English law on monetary penalties exacted in civil and criminal cases to punish and deter misconduct.” The Excessive Fines Clause thus “limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, `as punishment for some offense.’ ”[vi] This “notion of punishment . . . cuts across the division between the civil and the criminal law.”

The Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause prevents the imposition of a punishment which is “grossly disproportionate” to the crime committed. Three factors are relevant to this inquiry: (1) the inherent gravity of the offense; (2) the sentences imposed for similarly grave offenses in the same jurisdiction; and (3) sentences imposed for the same crime in other jurisdictions.[viii] The Supreme Court in Browning-Ferris has recognized that the Excessive Fines Clause is an essential check on the government’s tendency to “use the civil courts to extract large payments or forfeitures for the purpose of raising revenue.” The Supreme Court in Browning-Ferris has explained that “the word ‘fine’ . . . mean[s] a payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense.” “The Excessive Fines Clause thus `limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, as punishment for some offense.’ ”

Its application can be profound (see our next blog post) as municipalities are increasingly policing for profit and obtaining monies through the use of "Fees" and "Fines" that sometimes do not bear any relationship to the harm that the municipality seeks to prevent. Facing forfeiture?

Call The Law Offices of Cory H. Morris, 631-450-2515 (NYS) | (954) 998-2918 (FLA) - representing people facing accident, accountability and addiction matters - because the problems surrounding a criminal charge do not necessarily end in a criminal court anymore...

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