Supreme Court Will Hear Case on Whether The 50 States Must Comply with U.S. Constitution’s Excessive Fines Clause

This morning (June 18, 2018), the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of a case that has nationwide implications for both property rights and criminal justice. The question presented is whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protects against sanctions imposed by state and local authorities.

The appeal is brought by Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

The case at the heart of this important constitutional debate[1] deals with Tyson, a young man who is overcoming opioid addiction, a recovery made all the more difficult by the government’s seizure of his only vehicle—a $40,000 vehicle he bought with the proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy. The vehicle was seized from him after he was convicted of selling $225 worth of drugs to undercover officers.

“Without my car, it is incredibly difficult to do all the things the government wants me to do to stay clean, like visit my probation officer, go to AA, and keep my job,” explained Tyson. “Right now, I’m borrowing my aunt’s car to go to work so we can pay the bills, and she has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis appointments. You need a car to do all of these things.”

Tyson continued, “Fighting to stay clean is hard enough. I pleaded guilty to my crime. I served one year of house arrest and paid $1,200 in court fees. I’ve served out my punishment, but now the government is going beyond seeking justice. It wants to punish me out of proportion to the crime I committed. I just want to get my vehicle back and keep my life on track.”

Within months of Tyson’s arrest, the state filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit to take title to his vehicle. But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportionate” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Tyson suffered from drug addiction, the court noted, but his only record of dealing was selling a small amount of drugs to undercover police. The court also noted the “financial burdens” that Tyson had already faced when he pleaded guilty. Taking his car on top of all that would violate the Eighth Amendment.

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