Bags of money

Tyson Timbs knew he messed up when he was caught selling a couple of grams of drugs to an undercover cop, and he pleaded guilty, served a year of house arrest and paid $1,200.

He said he was on the way to turning his life around.

Then a private law firm notified him of an additional $40,000 fine for the same offense, through the confiscation of his truck, which would be used for the personal benefit of the lawyers and the cops in his Indiana town.

That would have been impossible had the fine been issued by the federal government, because the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibits such actions. But some cities and towns aren’t convinced they should follow that constitutional principle.

So the case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices are being asked to decide whether it’s allowable under the Constitution for municipalities’ cops and hired lawyers to impose crushing fines, then benefit personally.

“This case is about more than just a truck,” said Wesley Hottot of the Institute for Justice, which is working on the case.

“The Excessive Fines Clause is a critical check on the government’s power to punish people and take their property. Without it, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or – using civil forfeiture – no crime at all.”

The petition to the high court is expected to be reviewed this year.

The IJ explained the background: “Tyson’s road to the Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, leaving him more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds. Tyson used some of the money to buy a new Land Rover LR2. Four months later, however, his car was seized when he sold four grams of heroin to undercover officers. Tyson pleaded guilty to drug dealing, served one year on house arrest and paid $1,200 in court fees. Most importantly, his arrest prompted him to get his life back on track.”

Then came the letter from the lawyers, imposing “civil forfeiture” on him to take his truck.

In court, a trial judge scoffed at the state’s demand, ruling such a fine was “grossly disproportional” to the offense. An appeals court agreed.

But when the case reached the Indiana Supreme Court, the justices apparently saw the dollar signs.

They ruled “that state and local authorities do not need to comply with the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment in imposing fines or forfeitures.”

The institute quoted from one of the dissenting state judges, who said in an earlier case that such punishments are “weapons of mass destruction” against citizens.

“The truth is that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights today,” said IJ Attorney Sam Gedge. “Police and prosecutors have every incentive to maximize their own profit, and, unless we have federal protections against excessive fines, no one’s property is safe.”

The IJ cited previous cases over the same issue in Missouri, Indiana and other states.

“This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one,” said IJ’s Darpana Sheth. “We hope the Supreme Court takes this issue on, so we can establish that the U.S. Constitution secures meaningful protections for private property and limits the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”

The filing pointed out that in Indiana, “prosecutors sometimes have a personal financial stake in civil forfeiture because in many cases – including this one – the government farms out forfeiture prosecutions to private lawyers on a contingency-fee basis.”

“The impulse to use economic sanctions ‘for raising revenue in unfair ways’ could hardly be stronger.”

The Eight Amendment’s requirements are simple: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The position requested from the U.S. Supreme Court already has been adopted in the eighth and ninth circuits, as well as the supreme courts in Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia, the pleading explains.


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