Legal Report, March 2019
General Counsel, Jennifer G. Ashton
1. Timbs v. Indiana, 203 L. Ed. 2d 11, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 1350, 27 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 642, __ S.Ct. __, 2019 WL 691578 (2019). Eighth Amendment, Contraband forfeiture.
Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to
commit theft. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for
$42,000 with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State sought civil
forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, charging that the SUV had been used to transport heroin. Observing that Timbs
had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable
against him for his drug conviction, the trial court denied the State’s request. The vehicle’s forfeiture, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, and therefore
unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause
constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Indiana Supreme Court, unanimously ruling that the prohibition against excessive fines contained in the Eighth Amendment applies to the states and its subdivisions by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court noted that the protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause was both fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty and deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition. While the U.S. Supreme Court did not expressly conclude that in this particular case the seizure was excessive, it did conclude that the Eighth Amendment has full application to the states, including the proscription against excessive fines. Citing to its earlier decision in Austin v. United States, 509 U. S. 602 (1993), a case involving a federal forfeiture, the Court reaffirmed that civil in rem forfeitures fall within the Excessive Fines Clause’s protection when they are of a punitive nature. In short, the Court’s ruling in Timbs indicates that local civil forfeitures will be subject to Eighth Amendment scrutiny.
Timbs represents confirmation by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Eighth Amendment fully extends to state civil forfeitures. This case will likely be used by defendants charged with criminal violations and subject to civil forfeiture proceedings to make Eighth Amendment challenges to those forfeitures. Each municipality should review this case to determine how it impacts their civil forfeiture processes.