Supreme Court curbs state power to levy fines, seize property

The U.S. Supreme Court curbed the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property, siding with a man trying to keep his Land Rover after he pleaded guilty to selling drugs.

The unanimous ruling marks the first time the court has said that states and cities are bound by the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, part of the Eighth Amendment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had been away from the court for almost two months after undergoing lung cancer surgery, wrote the opinion and read a summary of it from the bench.

Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court building stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, April 7, 2017. Judge Neil Gorsuch is poised to win an intensely political confirmation fight to join a Supreme Court already struggling to stay above politics. The Senate's expected confirmation of Gorsuch Friday will restore the generally conservative majority that existed before Justice Antonin Scalia's death last year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“The protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” she wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”

The ruling puts new limits on what critics say is an increasingly common and abusive government practice of using fines and forfeitures to raise revenue.

The justices sent the case back to a lower court to consider whether Indiana officials went too far in seizing Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover. Timbs bought the vehicle for $42,000 in January 2013, a few months before police in Indiana arrested him for selling $385 of heroin in two transactions. Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation.

Timbs, who says he sold heroin to pay for what started as an opioid addiction, says the forfeiture of the vehicle was disproportionate to the $10,000 maximum fine he faced for his crimes. The Land Rover, which he was driving when he was arrested, had about 17,000 miles on the odometer when police seized it.

Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment was originally aimed only at the federal government. Starting in the 1960s, the court began “incorporating” many of those rights into the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which binds the states.

Although the outcome was unanimous, Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t join Ginsburg’s opinion, writing separately to say his reasoning was different.

The case is Timbs v. Indiana, 17-10.