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SCOTUS limits asset forfeitures

As an Ohio resident, you may or may not know that up until last month, the government could seize your property if it accused you of having committed certain crimes. This practice, known as “policing for profit,” allowed government officials to seize any of your assets even tenuously associated with your alleged crime through civil asset forfeiture. Worse yet, law enforcement officials did not need to actually charge you with a crime, nor did a prosecutor have to convict you of one for the government to keep your assets, sell them and retain the profits made therefrom. Civil rights advocates labeled this civil asset forfeiture process “legalized theft.”

As of February 20, 2019, however, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the civil asset forfeiture practice in the case of Timbs v. Indiana. Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that the Eighth Amendment prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines applies to the states as well as to the federal government.

Historical significance

You need to understand that originally, the Bill of Rights, i.e., the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, applied only to the federal government. When the Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War, it extended these rights and prohibitions to the States. Nevertheless, SCOTUS itself did not apply these rights and prohibitions to the states all at once. Rather, it applied them one by one. Consequently, the question of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines never made it to the Supreme Court until the Timbs case.

In this case, Indiana law enforcement officials charged Mr. Timbs with selling heroin to an undercover officer. Timbs pleaded guilty and received a sentence of house arrest for one year, probation for five years, attendance of addiction treatment classes and a $1,203 fee. Unsatisfied with this resolution, the State of Indiana hired a law firm to seize Mr. Timbs’s Land Rover, which he allegedly used to transport the heroin. The vehicle’s value of $42,000 vastly exceeded the value of the heroin in question. Timbs appealed, alleging that the excessive fine prohibition of the Eighth Amendment applied to the states, and therefore Indiana, via the Fourteenth Amendment.

SCOTUS agreed. As Justice Ginsburg stated in her opinion, “the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.”

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