Supreme Court Restricts Government’s Power To Seize Property

Supreme Court Restricts Government’s Power To Seize Property

Introduction

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is only sixteen words and one sentence but it is one of the most powerful protections in the U.S. It essentially means that the punishment must fit the crime. So, what happens when a fine is excessive? Does it violate the Eighth Amendment?

These questions were recently raised in the U.S. Supreme Court case Timbs v. Indiana (586 U.S. 2019).  

Asset Forfeiture Process

The process by which the government takes property in connection with a criminal case is known as asset forfeiture.

In many states, including California, the government has the right to seize homes, cars and other personal property when that property has been used during the commission of a crime.

However, California law does not even require that you be convicted of a crime to be able to seize your assets because asset forfeiture is a considered a civil penalty, not a criminal one.

Relevant Case Law

Tyson Timbs was convicted of selling $385 worth of heroin. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years probation. He was also fined $10,000, the maximum under the law. In addition, authorities seized his Land Rover, which he purchased only a few years before for $42,000 with money he received from an insurance policy following the death of his father.

Timbs appealed his case, arguing that the seizing of his vehicle amounted to an excessive fine. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court unanimously sided with Timbs.

“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Exorbitant tolls undermine other liberties,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies… Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence, for fines are a source of revenue, while other forms of punishment cost a State money.”

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