On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Challenges Abusive Asset Forfeiture Laws, Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Declare Excessive, Arbitrary Fines Unconstitutional
WASHINGTON, DC — Taking aim at excessive, arbitrary asset forfeiture laws, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that state governments must abide by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on the imposition of “excessive fines” for criminal offenses. Challenging the power of states to engage in abusive “policing for profit” tactics, Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court in Timbs v. State of Indiana, which found that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit the state from seizing a vehicle worth $42,000 as a penalty for selling four grams of heroin. Lower courts had found the seizure to be “grossly disproportionate” to the offense.
The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Timbs v. State of Indiana is available at www.rutherford.org. Attorneys D. Alicia Hickok, Mark Taticchi, S. Vance Wittie, and Matthew C. Sapp of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP in Philadelphia and Dallas, assisted the Institute in presenting the arguments in Timbs.
“Let’s not mince words: civil asset forfeiture laws give police the green light to rob, pilfer, steal, thieve, swipe, purloin, filch and liberate American taxpayers of even more of their hard-earned valuables (especially if it happens to be significant amounts of cash) using any means, fair or foul,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This is just a modern-day form of highway robbery. If the state or federal government can arbitrarily freeze, seize or lay claim to your property (money, land or possessions) under civil asset forfeiture schemes, you have no true rights.”
In January 2013, Tyson Timbs used $42,000 of life insurance proceeds he received after his father’s death to purchase a Land Rover sport utility vehicle (SUV). Timbs, who had just moved to Indiana to help his aunt rebuild her life, was also having life difficulties at the time, having become addicted to an opioid pain medication he was prescribed for a painful foot injury. Timbs’ addiction escalated to such a point that he went from abusing his opioid prescription to using and then selling heroin to fund his addiction. Eventually, a man who worked as a confidential informant for law enforcement connected Timbs with undercover police officers posing as drug buyers. On two occasions, Timbs sold the police a total of four grams of heroin for $385. He was arrested while driving to meet the police for a third sale. Timbs pleaded guilty to one count of selling a controlled substance and was sentenced to 6 years in jail, but was released for home detention and probation.
The state also brought a separate lawsuit seeking forfeiture of Timbs’ SUV under a state law allowing the seizure of property used to facilitate a criminal offense. A trial court denied the state’s forfeiture claim after finding that Timbs had purchased the SUV legally, not with crime-tainted funds, and that that forfeiture would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity of [Timbs’] offense,” thereby violating the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. This decision was initially affirmed on appeal, but was thereafter reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court has never held that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states.
In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute argues that the excessive fines clause does limit the power of states. Moreover, Institute attorneys warn that states and municipalities face a strong temptation to use fines, civil penalties, and asset forfeitures to bridge their fiscal shortfalls, and the Eighth Amendment is needed to prevent abuse of this power.