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June 11, 2021

Split Indiana Supreme Court finally rules that forfeiture of Tyson Timbs' Land Rover driven to small drug deal was constitutionally excessive

Well over two years ago, as blogged here, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019), that the that Excessive Fines Clause of Eighth Amendment applies to the states and then said little else about how that limit on punishment was to be applied. Upon remand, as blogged here, the Indiana Supreme Court some months later issued a lengthy opinion explaining its approach to the Clause while remanding case to the state trial court to apply this approach. And yesterday, the case returned to the Indiana Supreme Court as Indiana v. Timbs, No. 20S-MI-289 (Ind. June 10, 2021) (available here), and resulted in a split opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs. Here is how the majority opinion starts:

We chronicle and confront, for the third time, the State’s quest to forfeit Tyson Timbs’s now-famous white Land Rover.  And, again, the same overarching question looms: would the forfeiture be constitutional?

Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick, this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again.  During the voyage, several points have come to light. First, the vehicle’s forfeiture, due to its punitive nature, is subject to the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines.  Next, to stay within the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle must meet two requirements: instrumentality and proportionality. And, finally, the forfeiture falls within the instrumentality limit because the vehicle was the actual means by which Timbs committed the underlying drug offense.

But, until now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved — that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse?  The State not only urges us to answer that question in the negative, but it also requests that we wholly abandon the proportionality framework from State v. Timbs, 134 N.E.3d 12, 35–39 (Ind. 2019).  Today, we reject the State’s request to overturn precedent, as there is no compelling reason to deviate from stare decisis and the law of the case; and we conclude that Timbs met his burden to show gross disproportionality, rendering the Land Rover’s forfeiture unconstitutional.

Justice Slaughter concurs in the judgment with lengthy separate opinion that includes a notable baseball analogy while fretting that the "law we interpret for the public we serve demands more than our subjective 'totality' test can sustain."  And Justice Massa dissents with separate opinion that starts this way:

The Court offers a compelling case for letting the beleaguered Tyson Timbs keep his Land Rover after all these years.  And the opinion, much to its credit, goes the extra mile in its concluding paragraphs to note and predict that Timbs will be the rare heroin dealer able to show gross disproportionality when his car is forfeited.  Still, I respectfully dissent.

The forfeiture here was indeed harsh, perhaps even mildly disproportionate, given all the facts in mitigation.  But I part ways with the Court’s holding that it was grossly so.  Such a conclusion can only be sustained by finding the severity of the underlying felony to be “minimal,” as the Court holds today. I am skeptical that dealing in heroin can ever be a crime of minimal severity.  No narcotic has left a larger scar on our state and region in recent years, whether overly prescribed or purchased illicitly on the street.

June 11, 2021 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


As I noted at Volokh Conspiracy years back, dicta has long held that the Fines Clause was incorporated. Its application to a forfeiture was not novel either. Timbs to me was a clean-up job, suggested by the ability pf USSC to dispose of it in less than ten pages.

The only real question on remand for me was the "excessive" part. The to me somewhat exaggerated rhetoric (except that yes the case has dragged on) favored by Volokh coverage aside, I thought that was a closer question.

The abuses in the area were much more apparent in other instances. There is the "innocent owner" concern, such as a case back in the 1990s involving the seizure of a car not worth much, but seemed unfair to add the insult of a spouse's use for prostitution by taking the wife's half interest away.

The nuances of spousal property shows that could raise close questions, but blatant cases arose, including a lower standard of proof and issues like damage to property even if eventually you get it back.

Another concern was seizure of large amounts of property for what at times seems to be trivial crimes. The basic principle, as noted by tmm in a comment in the linked blog post, is rather open-ended. Seizure of a house or boat. Maybe, seizure of an expensive car for a drug deal involving a small amount of drugs.

The issue here was seizure of a Land Rover. The guy wasn't innocent though the state opinion sympathetically talks about his addiction and recovery. How the Land Rover was purchased by life insurance arising from the passing of his father etc.

We also have this: "Timbs spent the remainder of the proceeds—about $30,000—on heroin, and the majority of the miles Timbs put on the vehicle were from out-of-town trips to buy drugs." Then, during a sting operation, the Land Rover was used three times (the third aborted) to buy drugs worth a few hundred dollars.

The court weighs various factors to determine net the seizure was excessive. Okay. Personally, I'm not overly sympathetic about seizure of an expensive vehicle that was used repeatedly for drug crimes. It wasn't a one-off. It is far from clear that he couldn't have a livelihood or something without it (compare if someone's delivery truck was seized). The vehicle to me was a reflection of his criminal behavior (the sympathetic might say his addictive behavior). I would be more sympathetic in fact if it was a cheaper car.

Like the police officer in the recent Supreme Court case, any cheer at the result here is the expectation that more sympathetic (and imho probably appropriate) beneficiaries will arise from the result.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 11, 2021 10:20:15 AM

I'd add that personally I would support ending the criminalization of personal use of drugs generally speaking. So, a good criminal justice policy would be to not make purchase of heroin by consenting adults something the state punishes.

But, they did, and he repeatedly broke the law, in public (so it wasn't just private use), using the vehicle. The sting reflected that and this wasn't some first time offender or something.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 11, 2021 10:26:37 AM

I would actually go further than Joe and end all restrictions on both sale and purchase (that is, including prescription requirements) of drugs where individual results do not change through aggregate use. That is, namely, antibiotics, I suppose there may be other classes that I am not aware of but that is the major category. And those I would place tighter restrictions on. Insurance companies should, of course, remain free to insist on a prescription before coverage but that would be a matter of contract rather than criminal law.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 11, 2021 10:38:00 PM

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