Timbs v. Indiana, 2019 (S.Ct. 2019)
The notion “the punishment should fit the crime” dates back at least to the days of Moses the lawgiver. Cicero also taught the principle in ancient Rome. Dante’s notion of hell, expressed in the Inferno, was based on contrapasso: the equation of a punishment at the opposite end of spectrum of the crime. In modern constitutional law, the correlation of crime and punishment underlies the Eighth Amendment prohibition on excessive fines (as well as the ban on cruel and unusual punishments).
That’s really what the recent Supreme Court case of Timbs v. Indiana is all about. Though some have wrongly interpreted the case to prohibit civil forfeiture of property used to facilitate crime or property that is fruit of a crime, the decision is nowhere near that result. The question posed to the Supreme Court was whether the Excessive Fines Clause is “incorporated,” or in other words, applied to punishments imposed by state court as well as federal courts; the Court answered in the affirmative.
The question posed to the Supreme Court was whether the Excessive Fines Clause is “incorporated,” or in other words, applied to punishments imposed by state court as well as federal courts; the Court answered in the affirmative.
Tyson Timbs sold less than $400 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer. He was convicted of a drug crime and sentenced to one year of home detention, followed by five years of probation, and ordered to complete drug treatment. Upon Timbs’ conviction, the state seized his $42,000 Land Rover, on the grounds he had used the vehicle in the drug transaction. Timbs had purchased the SUV with money from his father’s life insurance policy.
The trial judge refused to order forfeiture of the Land Rover, noting forfeiture of a $42,000 vehicle connected to a single drug sale was “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of the crime. A state court of appeals agreed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. Their ruling stated the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause had never been held by the U.S. Supreme Court to apply to the states and the Eighth Amendment was originally intended to apply only to the federal government.
Proportionality has long been a flashpoint in any discussion of asset forfeiture. But what does “proportionality” really mean? Consider two drug mules each transporting cocaine with a street value of $1 million. One drives a 1972 Ford Pinto and the other drives a Mercedes-Benz AMG GLS 63 SUV with a base price of $136,000 and change. If both are caught and convicted, and each one owns the transport vehicle outright, is it proportional to forfeit the Pinto but not the Mercedes SUV? Next, consider two travel agency owners with roughly the same value of assets in their businesses. One blatantly cheats on her taxes, defrauding the IRS of $50,000. The other engages in human trafficking, but only profits $10,000 from the crime. Is it proportional to forfeit the business from the owner who profited greatly, but committed “only” a tax crime? Is it proportional to forfeit the business from the owner who committed the heinous crime of human trafficking, but didn’t make much money at it?
The Supreme Court sided unanimously with Tyson Timbs, holding the Excessive Fines Clause does apply against the states – but their reasoning was not unanimous at all. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion held the Excessive Fines Clause is “incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote his own concurring opinion, arguing for the same result, but through the path of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, not the Due Process Clause. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the result but wrote he “cannot agree” with the reasoning because it clashes with constitutional originalism. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who promised to be the champion of constitutional originalism interpretation, curiously had nothing to say. At the end of the day, the decision benefits Timbs but isn’t altogether that surprising for those familiar with the issue of proportionality and asset forfeiture.