The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states cannot impose excessive fees, fines, and forfeitures in criminal cases.
The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, makes it clear that the United States Constitution’s 8th amendment prohibiting “excessive fines” applies to states and local governments just as it applies to the Federal government.
“The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority,” Ginsburg wrote in the opinion.
AMS Law, P.C. Senior Partner Sharon R. Meisler, called this “an important ruling to have a more just system.”
The broad reaching decision was made in the specific case of defendant, Tyson Timbs. Timbs pled guilty to selling less than $400 of heroin to undercover police officers, in 2013. After the conviction, the State of Indiana seized Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover that he had purchased with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.
Timbs argued in state court, and at the United States Supreme Court, that the seizure of the Land Rover was excessive, because its value was more than four times the statutory maximum fine of $10,000. Indiana argued that the concept of excessive did not apply because the 8th amendment did not apply to states. The United States Supreme Court sided with Timbs. The ruling requires Indiana to review its initial seizure of his Land Rover.
Initially, the State of Indiana justified the seizure of the Land Rover under the practice known as Civil Forfeiture. This widely utilized system allows police to seize someone’s property.
In a majority of US states – including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – the police do not even need to convict a person of a crime to justify the seizure of their property. All that is required is probable cause that the assets are being used as part of criminal activity.
Critics of Civil Forfeiture often refer to the practice as, “policing for profit,” because law enforcement agencies are allowed to use some, or all, of the seized assets to fund their departments. This practice has grown so financially important to local municipalities that according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the top 100 cities imposing fines and seizures funded between 7 and 30 percent of their budgets through Civil Forfeiture.
The amount of money involved nationally is enormous. A joint study by Harvard University and the National institute of Justice found that 10 million people owe more than $50 Billion combined as a result of fines, fees, and forfeitures.
This United States Supreme Court decision is a big step towards limiting, or even ending, the system of Civil Forfeiture. Unfortunately, it may take years for the new ruling to be fully implemented. Each municipality may attempt to define what is excessive to allow them to continue to generate revenue through forfeiture and fines.
In the interim, it will be important for your legal counsel to fight hard to protect your rights, and your property when you come into contact with the justice system.
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