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US Supreme Court Overturns Land Rover Seizure As Excessive
High court decision delivers a severe blow to the law enforcement practice of taking away automobiles from individuals suspected of minor crimes.

Tyson Timbs
The US Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a unanimous blow to state law enforcement agencies that generate millions in revenue from the seizure of automobiles. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the decision that found the seizure of a white 2012 Land Rover LR2, worth $41,558, from Tyson Timbs over a minor drug charge was excessive under the federal constitution.

In 2013, Timbs was at a low point in his life. His father had died, and the proceeds of a life insurance policy allowed him to buy the SUV. While suffering from a work-related injury, he became addicted to opioids -- a habit that quickly escalated to heroin. As soon as the insurance money ran out, Timbs turned to selling small amounts of the drug to feed his addiction. He was caught selling $225 in heroin to undercover officers.

Timbs admitted his guilt to an Indiana judge and promised to turn his life around. He was sentenced him to one year of home arrest, five years of probation and $1203 in fines and fees. The state then moved to permanently confiscate the Land Rover under drug forfeiture laws. The maximum penalty under the law for the offenses Timbs committed was $10,000, but the SUV was worth four times that.

Timbs insisted that taking his Land Rover was excessive. The Bill of Rights bars the imposition of "excessive fines," but until now the courts have not applied this protection to the states.

"For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties," Justice Ginsburg wrote for the court. "Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies."

Indiana prosecutors did not want to give up the $3.7 million in annual revenue from impounding cars and other property from suspects, so they argued the clause did not apply, particularly since grabbing the Land Rover from Timbs was "not excessive." The court was not persuaded, and it pointed to the state's clear financial motivation.

"Perhaps because they are politically easier to impose than generally applicable taxes, state and local governments nationwide increasingly depend heavily on fines and fees as a source of general revenue," Justice Ginsburg wrote, citing the brief from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas agreed with their liberal colleague about the outcome of the case, buy they believe procedurally it should have been decided on the Constitution's privileges and immunities clause and not the due process clause.

A copy of the full decision is available in a 160k PDF file at the source link at the bottom of the page.

Article Excerpt:
Excerpt from the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas

The prohibition on excessive fines remained fundamental at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1868, 35 of 37 state constitutions "expressly prohibited excessive fines." Nonetheless, as the Court notes, abuses of fines continued, especially through the Black Codes adopted in several States. The "centerpiece" of the Codes was their "attempt to stabilize the black workforce and limit its economic options apart from plantation labor."

Under the Codes, "the state would enforce labor agreements and plantation discipline, punish those who refused to contract, and prevent whites from competing among themselves for black workers." The Codes also included "'antienticement' measures punishing anyone offering higher wages to an employee already under contract."

The 39th Congress focused on these abuses during its debates over the Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Freedmen's Bureau Act. During those well-publicized debates, Members of Congress consistently highlighted and lamented the "severe penalties" inflicted by the Black Codes and similar measures, (Sen. Trumbull 1866), suggesting that the prohibition on excessive fines was understood to be a basic right of citizenship.

For example, under Mississippi law, adult "freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes" "without lawful employment" faced $50 in fines and 10 days' imprisonment for vagrancy. Those convicted had five days to pay or they would be arrested and leased to "any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine and forfeiture and all costs."

Members of Congress criticized such laws "for selling [black] men into slavery in punishment of crimes of the slightest magnitude." (Rep. Cook, 1866) ("It is idle to say these men will be protected by the States").

Similar examples abound. One congressman noted that Alabama's "aristocratic and anti-republican laws, almost reenacting slavery, among other harsh inflictions impose . . . a fine of fifty dollars and six months' imprisonment on any servant or laborer (white or black) who loiters away his time or is stubborn or refractory." (Rep. Myers). He also noted that Florida punished vagrants with "a fine not exceeding $500 and imprison[ment] for a term not exceeding twelve months, or by being sold for a term not exceeding twelve months, at the discretion of the court." Ibid. At the time, such fines would have been ruinous for laborers. Cf. Sen. Howe ("A thousand dollars! That sells a negro for his life").

These and other examples of excessive fines from the historical record informed the Nation's consideration of the Fourteenth Amendment. Even those opposed to civil-rights legislation understood the Privileges or Immunities Clause to guarantee those "fundamental principles" "fixed" by the Constitution, including "immunity from . . . excessive fines." And every post-1855 state constitution banned excessive fines.

When the Fourteenth Amendment Was Ratified in 1868, The attention given to abusive fines at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment, along with the ubiquity of state excessive-fines provisions, demonstrates that the public continued to understand the prohibition on excessive fines to be a fundamental right of American citizenship.

The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and from the founding of our country, it has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection. As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the States.
Source: PDF File Timbs v. Indiana (US Supreme Court, 2/20/2019)

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