If your property is seized by police, you now have the right to challenge that decision under the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled. In a 9-0 decision, the Court held that the Constitution’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to the state-level practice of civil asset forfeiture.
The case before the court was Timbs v. Indiana, in which Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to two counts of dealing heroin and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. As part of his sentence, Indiana sought to seize Timbs’ land rover — with a value of four times the maximum penalty for Timbs’ crimes.
“Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Court’s decision. “Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties.”
Ginsburg announced the Court’s ruling on her second day back following surgery to remove cancer from her lung in December.
Ginsburg noted that civil asset forfeiture as it previously existed was easy to abuse as a retaliatory tool against political enemies or as a source of revenue for state and local governments, neither of which are the purpose of policing.
Although asset fortieth has produced results that are objectively good — it took the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” album away from “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, for instance (also money from drug cartels) — it has been routinely abused by law enforcement.
In 2014, more value had been taken by civil asset forfeiture than by burglars. And most people who have their assets seized by police aren’t criminals, and never actually have to be charged with crimes.
For instance, an elderly South Carolina woman nearly lost her home to asset forfeiture because police believed drug deals occasionally occurred on the property, without ever implicating the woman herself.
This decision opens the floodgates on new cases entering the court system, as people try to get back what they lost to a policing practice so often and so easily corrupted.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.