U.S. Supreme Court Rules States Can’t Impose Excessive Fines
V&E Government Investigations Update, February 21, 2019
Yesterday, in Timbs v. Indiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to the states. In an opinion drafted by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held the Excessive Fines Clause is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” with “deep roots in our history and tradition.”1 Until Timbs, the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines only applied to the federal government.
The case arose from a civil forfeiture action. Petitioner Tyson Timbs had pled guilty to dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft.2 He was sentenced to one year of home detention, five years of probation, and ordered to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203.3 The drug charge at issue carried a maximum fine of $10,000.4
In a civil suit, the government sought to forfeit Timbs’s Land Rover, which was valued at $42,000.5 Evidence showed Timbs had transported drugs in the Land Rover. A state appeals court held that forfeiting the car was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause, and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Supreme Court had not held that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to state governments.6
At the Supreme Court, the State of Indiana argued that even if the Excessive Fines Clause applied to the states, it did not apply to civil in rem forfeiture actions.7 The Court rejected that argument, holding it would be improper to exclude civil in rem forfeiture cases from application of the excessive fines prohibition.8
The opinion does not grapple with how courts should decide whether a particular fine is excessive. While the Court was willing to say “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” it did not provide guidance for determining when a fine is exorbitant.9 The facts of Timbs didn’t require a deep dive into the issue because it was excessive on its face: the forfeiture of a $42,000 vehicle for a crime with a maximum $10,000 fine.
Interestingly, the opinion acknowledges that all fifty states had state constitutional provisions “prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality.”10 The fact that there are now state and federal prohibitions on excessive fines should make it easier for practitioners to assert that a particular fine is too high. As more courts consider these issues under the same, federal standard, there will be more precedents to deploy in challenging a particular fine or forfeiture.
All nine justices agreed with the result. Justices Gorsuch and Thomas filed concurring opinions.
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1 Timbs v. Indiana, slip opinion, at page 2 (Feb. 20, 2019).
2 Id. at 1.
6 Id. at 2.
7 Id. at 7.
8 Id. at 9.
9Id. at 6.