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February 20, 2019

Supreme Court rules unanimously in Timbs that Excessive Fines Clause of Eighth Amendment applies to the states (and says little else)

The Supreme Court this morning made quick work of the contention by the state of Indiana in Timbs v. Indiana, No. 17-1091 (S. Ct. Feb 20, 2019) (available here), that it is not bound by the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.  In a short unanimous ruling authored by Justice Ginsburg explains why "the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming."  Here is a key passage from the start of he Timbs opinion:

The question presented: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause?  Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishment” and “[e]xcessive bail,” the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminallaw-enforcement authority.  This safeguard, we hold, is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with “dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis deleted).  The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Notably, the Court in Timbs does not address the subsequent issue of whether seizure of Tyson Timbs' Land Rover SUV Timbs constituted an excessive fine (as lower courts in Indiana had found). The Supreme Court was just content to resolve this incorporation issue.

Notably, Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion and Justice Clarence Thomas issued an opinion concurring in the judgment in Timbs, and they are both writing separately to engage the issue of just how the Excessive Fines Clause should be incorporated against the states.  Justice Thomas makes, through an extended opinion, this fundamental incorporation point that he has raised before: "Instead of reading the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to encompass a substantive right that has nothing to do with 'process,' I would hold that the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the 'privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States' protected by the Fourteenth Amendment."  Justice Gorsuch engages in a short opinion stating "As an original matter, I acknowledge, the appropriate vehicle for incorporation may well be the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause, rather than, as this Court has long assumed, the Due Process Clause. " 

February 20, 2019 at 10:49 AM | Permalink


Will he get his car back? If so, what do we make of the fact that he could also have been sentenced to years in prison? The discourse at the oral argument pointed up the potentially glaring disconnect between the deference to sentences of any length and the treatment Mr. T's Land Rover is receiving.

Posted by: John | Feb 21, 2019 12:43:50 AM

I think the most troubling abuses in this general area were cases where the cops stopped someone, found them with money, said it was drug money, and took the money and/or the vehicle without actually proving in court that it was in fact drug money.

The ruling sure looks like it will put a stop to that particular practice, as losing a vehicle is obviously an excessive fine for committing no crime.

I would have no problem with the police taking a vehicle if they could prove it was purchased with profits from a drug-dealing business. Hopefully the courts would find that such a fine was not excessive.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Feb 21, 2019 9:00:04 AM

John, as I read the opinion, it did not resolve whether the trial court's excessive fines analysis was legally correct. Instead, it held that the Indiana Supreme Court was wrong for deciding that it did not need to review the merits of the trial court ruling. So, the case should be headed back down to the Indiana Supreme Court to decide if the forfeiture in this case was an excessive fine.

I have problems with the logic of the trial court that the measure of whether forfeiture is an excessive fine is the maximum fine authorized by law. I have had cases in which defendants owned the real estate that they used to manufacture/grow drugs. Under traditional forfeiture law dating back to the Framing, such property was forfeitable. I am not sure any state legislature in drafting the maximum fine that could be imposed (in addition to possible forfeiture) was intending to put a cap on the value of the property forfeited. Additionally, and it depends on the state, fines can be capped at a level that is substantially less than the defendant's gain from the crime. The brief summary in the opinion makes it unclear how large the defendant's drug operation is. Whether forfeiture of the vehicle is excessive (at least in my opinion) depends upon whether the evidence shows an extended pattern of using the vehicle to distribute a significant quantity of drugs or only a person functioning as a mule on a single occasion.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 21, 2019 11:01:03 AM

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