SCOTUS Rules Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause Applies to States
In Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U. S. ____ (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eight Amendments’ ban on excessive fines is applicable to states. The Court’s decision was unanimous.
Facts of Timbs v. Indiana
Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The trial court sentenced him to one year of home detention and five years of probation. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized his vehicle, a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for about $42,000. Timbs paid for the vehicle with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died.
The State subsequently brought a civil forfeiture suit for Timbs’s Land Rover, charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin. After Timbs’s guilty plea in the criminal case, the trial court held a hearing on the forfeiture demand. Although finding that Timbs’s vehicle had been used to facilitate violation of a criminal statute, the court denied the requested forfeiture, observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, hence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed that determination, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. The Indiana Supreme Court did not decide whether the forfeiture would be excessive. Instead, it held that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.
Court’s Decision in Timbs v. Indiana
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed. “The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause,” the Court held.
As explained by the Court, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates and renders applicable to the States those Bill of Rights protections that are “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010). The Court went on to hold that the Excessive Fines Clause meets that standard.
“[T]he historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the unanimous Court. “Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty’ and ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’” She added:
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.”
The Court also rejected Indiana’s argument that the Clause does not apply to its use of civil in rem forfeitures. “In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a Bill of Rights protection, this Court asks whether the right guaranteed—not each and every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “The Excessive Fines Clause is thus incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted.”
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
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- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.