On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimouslyruledthat it’s unconstitutional for states to steal people’s cars. That’s a great step forward in cracking down on civil asset forfeiture and the practice of states and cities seizing personal property as a means to raise money.
Thedecisionis a victory for Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man who had been fighting the state to get his $42,000 Land Rover SUV back after it was seized during his arrest. He had purchased the vehicle with the proceeds from an insurance policy he received after his father’s death.
Nonetheless, the state thought that his guilty plea to selling a few hundred dollars in heroin to undercover police officers entitled them to the vehicle on the grounds that he had used it to transport drugs. As the Supreme Court explained, however, the forfeiture of the vehicle amounted to “more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against Timbs for his drug conviction.”
That, by any measure, is excessive. So much so that it amounts to flat-out theft.
Indeed, no court disputed that seizing the vehicle amounted to an excessive fine. Instead, the Indiana Supreme Court justified the state's seizure of the vehicle on the grounds that Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines did not apply to states.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Eighth Amendment protections, including the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, excessive bail, protections against excessive fines, and other government abuses, are all “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and that states are bound to follow them under the Fourteenth Amendment.
There was, however, a slight disagreement over which part of the amendment is binding to states. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, relied on the Due Process Clause. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch agreed, but explained in concordances that they would have relied on the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment rather than Due Process.
All agreed, however, that protections against seizures of property that amounted to excessive fines had a long history. The court traced that history all the way back to the Magna Carta and, in the U.S., to the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights is the modern incarnation of these centuries-old rights.
After all, it’s impossible for any system that purports to protect rights and uphold justice to allow an arrest or conviction to become a license for the government to simply take whatever it wants from an individual.
That makes the ruling an important victory for criminal justice reform. It will hopefully prevent states and cities from abusing their authority to take property beyond what a court has ordered, thereby protecting the rights of individuals around the country.