SCOTUS Rules Cops Can't Seize Your Sh*t Like Common Gangsters
The Supreme Court has pulled the plug on what was proving to be a gross but lucrative side hustle for law enforcement. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to individual states, as well.
Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, is a self-described "former heroin junkie." He pleaded guilty five years ago to selling $260 worth of heroin. The government seized his $42,000 Land Rover through the process of "civil asset forfeiture" or, in layman's terms, state-sanctioned piracy. Timbs was not a criminal mastermind. He only sold drugs twice, both times to cops. He bought the Land Rover with money from his late father's insurance policy. Yes, he used the car to buy drugs but even so, the maximum fine by Indiana law for his crimes was $10,000.
The Timbs case served as an ideal constitutional challenge for civil asset forfeiture. We've discussed how jacked up this is down in South Carolina, but as Timbs's attorney, Wesley Hottot, describes, Indiana has its own uniquely perverse spin on it.
HOTTOT: "This is the only state in the nation where prosecutions for civil forfeiture can be outsourced to private law firms who then work on contingency based on how much property they forfeit... Tyson's case, this very case, was brought by a private law firm working on contingency. We have to ask ourselves if these types of cases would even be brought if the prosecutor wasn't financially self-interested."
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled against Timbs, because what else would you expect? But with some prodding from the libertarian Institute for Justice (hey, money's involved), the Supreme Court took up the case last year.
The oral arguments are interesting. There's no evidence Justice Clarence Thomas was either present or conscious during them, which is arguably not that big a shock. The conservative justices put Hottot through the gauntlet. Justice Alito basically asked why seizing a pricey vehicle from Timbs was that big a deal when he could've been sentenced to years in prison. Hottot put this in clear perspective that exposed the core issue with civil asset forfeiture.
HOTTOT: But if we look to the Harmelin decision, Justice Scalia's opinion in that case points out that there is special reason to be concerned when the government uses economic sanctions to punish a person because, unlike all other forms of punishment, whether it be life imprisonment, Justice Alito, or -- or a three strikes law, those cost the government money.
But these types of forfeitures and fines raise revenue. And there's good reason, there's good history, for being concerned about the sovereign power to raise revenue using punishment.
Look at Hottot invoking conservative hero Antonin Scalia! Slam dunk. Another cool moment came when Hottot offered an alternative argument from Section 1 of the 14th Amendment's privileges or immunities clause and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quickly cut him off to point out that this would exclude non-citizens. Can't get anything past Notorious RBG. In the end, the decision was based on the 14th Amendment's assertion that "no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law." This woke up Thomas, who has never cared much for the due process clause, which the Court has used to protect a woman's right to an abortion and, curiously, Thomas's own interracial marriage. Justice Neil Gorsuch also said he would've preferred basing the decision on the privileges or immunities clause.
Ginsburg wrote the Court's opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs. Putting to rest the rightwing conspiracy that she's been replaced by a Paul McCartney impersonator, Ginsburg read a summary of her opinion from the bench like a boss.
"The Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause," Ginsburg wrote, later adding that "Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties [...] The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is indeed overwhelming."
This ruling provides precedent and grounds to put the smackdown on civil asset shakedowns across the nation. It is a greater victory for civil liberty than the "freedom" to refuse to bake cakes for gay people. However, former Indiana governor Mike Pence has yet to tweet his support.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.