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The Supreme Court Has Limited How Much Private Property States Can Seize

The Eighth Amendment bars the federal government from imposing excessive fines. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court held that the limit also applies to states and cities.

Posted on February 20, 2019, at 3:18 p.m. ET

Chris Geidner/BuzzFeed

WASHINGTON — States and cities have to follow the same rules as the federal government when it comes to constitutional limits on excessive fines, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday.

The court ruled in Tyson Timbs' case over Indiana's seizure of his $40,000 Land Rover SUV that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines being imposed applies to — or, is incorporated against — the states.

The ruling comes as criminal justice advocates on the left and right have taken aim at civil-asset forfeiture programs as being unjustly punitive. The libertarian Institute for Justice represented Timbs before the US Supreme Court and celebrated Wednesday's ruling as a big step forward in their effort.

"Today's ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called 'policing for profit' — where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone's property, then sell it and keep the profits to fund their departments," Timbs' attorney, Wesley Hottot, said in a statement.

The Indiana Supreme Court had allowed the seizure of Timbs' property as part of a low-level drug-dealing offense because, it ruled, the Excessive Fines Clause did not apply to the states. As a result of Wednesday's decision, however, the Indiana Supreme Court decision was tossed out, and the state court will now need to reconsider whether the forfeiture of Timbs' vehicle was excessive, as a trial court earlier held it was.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her second day back on the bench after her December surgery for lung cancer, read her opinion for the court on a day in which much of official Washington was shut down due to snow.

"The right to be free from excessive fines is stated in sources ranging from the Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the found era to the present day," Ginsburg said. "And for good reason. Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties."

Under the federal rule, fines are constitutionally excessive if they are "grossly disproportionate" to the crime at issue. Wednesday's ruling means that rule — and the associated rules that the Supreme Court has created to apply those protections to specific scenarios — now apply to states and other political subdivisions.

The trial court in Timbs' case, in which he was not sentenced to any jail time and had to pay fees and costs of $1,203, found that the seizure of the SUV, which he had purchased for $42,000, was grossly disproportionate to his crime. The Indiana Supreme Court did not rule on whether it was grossly disproportionate because it found, instead, that the US Supreme Court had never ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to the states at all.

The US Supreme Court took care of that on Wednesday.

"In short, the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming," Ginsburg wrote for the US Supreme Court. "Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both 'fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty' and 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition.'"

Now, though, with the clause applied to the states, the case will return to Indiana, where the court will have to resolve the question of whether the seizure of Timbs' SUV was "grossly disproportionate" to his crime.

Although the US Supreme Court was unanimous in ruling that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, two justices wrote separately to discuss the method the court uses to apply provisions of the Bill of Rights, which initially only applied to the federal government, to the states.

While the majority opinion by Ginsburg used the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that states provide "due process" to apply the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause to the states — the provision the court has used to incorporate most of the Bill of Rights against the states — Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately that the Fourteenth Amendment's clause barring states from limiting the "privileges or immunities" of citizens should be used to apply the Excessive Fines Clause to the states.

Thomas has long criticized the court's use of the due process clause, and in particular the court's use of "substantive" due process, which he wrote Wednesday is "oxymoronic." He used Wednesday's decision to further take aim at the cases that use that application of the clause — criticizing the Roe v. Wade abortion decision as one of "the Court's most notoriously incorrect decisions" and the legal reasoning behind the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision as "border[ing] on meaningless."

The distinction is small but could have substantial consequences because of the due process provision's application to all "person[s]" and the privileges or immunities provision's more limited application only to "citizens."

For his part, Justice Neil Gorsuch wasn't certain which method of applying the provision was best. In a one-page opinion concurring with Ginsburg's opinion for the court, Gorsuch added that the Privileges or Immunities Clause "may well be" the "appropriate vehicle" for incorporation.

"But nothing in this 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," Gorsuch wrote.

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