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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Saturday, March 23, 2019

State Fines & Forfeitures May be Excessive

Last month, the SCOTUS ruled in Timbs v Indiana that a state's fine or forfeiture scheme may be excessive and thus unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling means that persons convicted of crimes under state law, or found responsible under a municipal ordinance, can challenge the ultimate fine on the new-found constitutional grounds that the fine is excessive.

Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man, was convicted by his own plea of dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. After he was arrested and charged, the police seized his Land Rover SUV for which he paid approximately $44,000. This forfeiture seemed unfair considering the express prohibition of excessive fines in the 8th Amendment.

Ill-Gotten Gains Can Be Forfeited

The uncontested facts in the case are that Timbs used proceeds he received from his father's life insurance policy to purchase the vehicle. One of the chief rationales underpinning state forfeiture laws is to punish felons for using ill-gotten gains to purchase assets that often assist them in their chosen criminal enterprise.

In this case, Timbs successfully challenged Indiana's forfeiture statute that allowed the state to attach his expensive Land Rover SUV. Timbs argued that the forfeiture was excessive relative to his drug conviction.

The state court agreed that taking the Land Rover was excessive considering that the maximum fine for heroin possession was less than 25% of the value of the vehicle. Of course, the State of Indiana appealed but the trial court was affirmed; the forfeiture was deemed excessive. At the Indiana Supreme Court, however, Timbs lost when the trial court and intermediate appellate court were reversed.

In granting certiorari, the SCOTUS examined whether the 8th Amendment's prohibition against "excessive fines". The 8th Amendment reads, "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

Application to States as well as the Federal Government

During oral argument in the case last November, Indiana's Solicitor General went toe-to-toe with Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Indiana argued that the 8th Amendment ban on "excessive fines" applied only to the federal government; not to the states. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh we not having it, asserting that in 2019, all of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights -the first 10 amendments to the Constitution- applied to states as well as to the federal government.

Indiana also asserted that a "forfeiture" was distinct from a fine or other sanction. The SCOTUS shot that argument down too, but on technical grounds. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, noting that the State of Indiana did not raise the forfeiture vs fine argument in its brief filed in the Indiana Supreme Court thus, it could not argue the point to the SCOTUS. We here at the Law Blogger are thinking that the proverbial heads rolled in Indianapolis over that non-preserved argument. The SCOTUS routinely avoids deciding weighty issues on technical grounds.

Whenever litigants pose weighty issues that can be decided narrowly, without a constitutional basis or rationale, the SCOTUS usually takes the bait and declines to make momentous constitutional decisions. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Opinion

This case was an example of this principle. In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg, having recovered from her lung operation, put together a veritable tour de force to frame the issue:
The Excessive Fines Clause traces its venerable lineage back to at least 1215, when Magna Carta guaranteed that “[a] Free-man shall not be amerced for a small fault, but after the manner of the fault; and for a great fault after the greatness thereof, saving to him his contenement . . . .” As relevant here, Magna Carta required that economic sanctions “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive [an offender] of his livelihood.” "[N]o man shall have a larger amercement imposed upon him, than his circumstances or personal estate will bear . . . .”). Despite Magna Carta, imposition of excessive fines persisted. The 17th century Stuart kings, in particular, were criticized for using large fines to raise revenue, harass their political foes, and indefinitely detain those unable to pay. When James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, the  attendant English Bill of Rights reaffirmed Magna Carta’s guarantee by providing that “excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual Punishments inflicted.” Across the Atlantic, this familiar language was adopted almost verbatim, first in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, then in the Eighth Amendment, which states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Adoption of the Excessive Fines Clause was in tune not only with English law; the Clause resonated as well with similar colonial-era provisions. (“[A]ll fines shall be moderate, and saving men’s contenements, merchandize, or wainage.”). In 1787, the constitutions of eight States—accounting for 70% of the U. S. population—forbade excessive fines. [Citations omitted.]
Justice Ginsburg next examined several instances of state law schemes over the centuries and in more recent decades where fines seemed excessive, despite the 8th Amendment. She cited to the excessive post-Civil War fines in the South designed to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the racial hierarchy.

Citing the landmark case, Harmelin v Michigan, Justice Ginsburg continued:
For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, as the Stuarts’ critics learned several centuries ago. 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.” [Citations also omitted.]
Her opinion next focused on the 14th Amendment's Due Process clause, which requires that the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, apply to the states. She rejected Indiana's argument that the forfeiture law was civil in nature and, as such, was not a fundamental right.

The bottom line: Indiana's civil forfeiture laws are invalidated. This holding has implications for forfeitures here in Michigan. Justices Gorsuch and Thomas concurred in the result but wrote separately.

We Can Help

We here at the Law Blogger have had many cases where, as a part of a felony arrest, cash, a vehicle, or other asset -even a house- was forfeited under Michigan's forfeiture statute. The SCOTUS' Timbs decision will now throw some shade on the forfeiture process here in Michigan.

If you or a family member have experienced an excessive fine or a similar forfeiture like in the Timbs case, contact our law firm for a free consultation. We can assess your legal options.

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