Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause, which prohibits the government requiring excessive payments as punishment for criminal offenses, incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the states from imposing excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures. Tyson Timbs contends that because the Excessive Fines Clause is deeply rooted in the United States’ history and tradition, it is a fundamental right that the states cannot violate as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment. The State of Indiana argues that the relevant issue is not whether the Excessive Fines Clause, in general, is incorporated against the states, but rather whether there is a proportionality requirement for state forfeitures concerning property, or in rem forfeitures. Indiana maintains that protection from disproportionate in rem forfeitures is not deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition. The outcome of this case will affect how states and localities generate revenue; the degree of financial burden that states and localities may impose on individuals; and state governments’ ability to deter criminal activity and reintegrate people within the criminal justice system into society.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In January 2013, Defendant Tyson Timbs purchased a Land Rover with $42,058.30 in life-insurance proceeds after his father’s death. Timbs then regularly used the Land Rover to buy and transport heroin in the State of Indiana for his drug addiction. The police learned of Timbs’s drug trafficking, however, and set up three controlled heroin buys. During the first buy, the police bought two grams of heroin for $225; during the second buy, they bought two more grams of heroin for $160. The third buy was not completed because Timbs was arrested during a traffic stop on his way to the transaction.
In June 2013, Indiana charged Timbs with two counts of dealing in a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. About two years later, Timbs pleaded guilty to one count of dealing in a controlled substance and to the count of conspiracy to commit theft in exchange for the dismissal of the second count of dealing. The trial court sentenced Timbs to six years—one year in the community corrections and five years on probation—and assessed against him police costs of $385, an interdiction fee of $200, court costs of $168, a bond fee of $50, and a fee of $400 for undergoing a drug-and-alcohol assessment with the probation department.
A few months later, Indiana additionally sought to forfeit Timbs’s Land Rover. Under Indiana law, prosecutors may outsource civil forfeiture cases to private lawyers, who collect a percentage of the revenue from the forfeited property.The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and denied the forfeiture, finding that it would violate the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause because it would be “grossly disproportionate to the gravity of [Timbs’s] offense.” In support of its finding, the court noted that the vehicle was worth approximately four times the maximum monetary fine for Timbs’s felony.
The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, concluding that, although the United States Supreme Court has not yet held that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, based on Indiana precedent, the Clause does apply in Indiana. The court found that, because the record showed only that Timbs had sold heroin twice as a result of controlled buys, forfeiture of the Land Rover in addition to the financial burdens imposed on him when he pleaded guilty would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his offense.
The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ opinion, concluding that the United States Supreme Court has never enforced the Excessive Fines Clause against the states, and declined to find or assume incorporation. Timbs appealed and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 18, 2018.
APPLYING THE EXCESSIVE FINES CLAUSE AGAINST THE STATES THROUGH THE DUE PROCESS CLAUSE
Tyson Timbs contends that the Excessive Fines Clause, which prohibits the government from imposing excessive fines on criminal offenders, applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. According to Timbs, the Excessive Fines Clause applies against the states because it is fundamental and “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” Timbs argues that the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the clause has been closely linked to securing life, liberty, and property in both American jurisprudence and other countries’ legal systems that predated it. Timbs asserts that concerns about excessive fines date back to as early as the Magna Carta (1215), which imposed a check on the King’s power to fine subjects. Timbs notes that four-hundred years later, English kings used fines to attack critics and outsourced fining power to allies of the crown. Timbs states that Parliament responded to these tactics by devoting a portion of the English Bill of Rights (1688) to abusive fines. Timbs argues that England’s history with abusive fines also shaped the American colonists’ view of freedom from excessive fines as a fundamental right. Timbs contends that the historical mistrust of the government’s power to punish prompted multiple states to include protections against excessive fines in their constitutions and inspired ratification of the Eighth Amendment in 1791. Timbs adds that the Excessive Fines Clause in particular was designed to limit the sovereign’s power to collect fines for improper ends.
Additionally, Timbs contends that the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 reaffirmed the significance of freedom from excessive fines in America’s legal system. Timbs points out that fines and forfeitures were a prominent feature of the “Black Codes,” which were used to subjugate African Americans in Southern states; the majority of these states also allowed the hiring-out of individuals who were unable to pay their fines. Timbs states that members of Congress viewed such economic sanctions as a serious threat to personal liberty when they were debating the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Timbs further notes that all but two states had an Excessive Fines Clause in their constitutions by the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Timbs argues that the history of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments demonstrates that freedom from excessive fines is fundamental to the American legal system.
Timbs also argues that freedom from excessive fines remains fundamental today because excessive fines continue to threaten personal liberty and are sometimes abused by the government. Moreover, Timbs contends that fines are uniquely prone to abuse since, unlike other methods of punishment, they raise revenue and the government often uses them unfairly to that end. Timbs also notes that Indiana is the only state that allows state prosecutors to outsource civil forfeiture cases to private lawyers, who in turn collect a percentage of the revenue from the forfeited property. Timbs says that this system amplifies the risk of abuse by incentivizing private lawyers to perpetuate the system of civil forfeitures.
The State of Indiana counters that the issue is not whether the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment as a general matter, but rather whether the clause requires that a civil forfeiture be proportional to the conduct authorizing it. Accordingly, Indiana contends that the Court should look at the history of in rem forfeitures specifically to determine whether it is a fundamental right because that is the precise right being asserted. Indiana therefore argues that Timbs errs by presenting almost exclusively historical evidence relating to criminal fines rather than in rem forfeitures. Indiana continues that protection from disproportionate in rem forfeitures through the Excessive Fines Clause is not fundamental or deeply rooted in the American tradition. Indiana notes that no court even suggested a proportionality requirement for in rem forfeitures until the late twentieth century, despite other constitutional challenges brought against in rem forfeitures and the invocation of the proportionality requirement against in personam fines during the same period.
Indiana continues that no court held that an in rem forfeiture was subject to a proportionality requirement by a federal or state Excessive Fines Clause until the late twentieth century; the five state courts to consider the argument ultimately dismissed it. Indiana argues that the dearth of proportionality challenges to in rem proceedings is surprising given that litigants had many opportunities to raise such challenges and consequently demonstrates a widespread understanding that the Excessive Fines Clause does not impose a proportionality requirement on in rem forfeitures. Indiana asserts that the absence of such challenges weighs heavily against a finding that the proportionality requirement is fundamental because there were no significant political concerns pressuring judges, lawmakers, or litigants to ignore the right. According to Indiana, the proportionality protection was rarely invoked because it was not understood as a fundamental right. Indiana maintains that disproportionate in rem forfeitures do not violate Due Process, and therefore a protection against disproportionate in rem forfeitures is not applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
However, Indiana also contends that, even if the Court decides to evaluate whether the Excessive Fines Clause as a whole applies to the states, the Court should still take into account the history of all of the Clause’s protections, including the protection against disproportionate in rem forfeitures. . Indiana notes that the Clause does not apply against the states merely because its restriction against disproportionate criminal penalties is fundamental. Instead, Indiana says that there is no precedent for applying a clause from the Bill of Rights against the states unless all of the protections in that clause have a fundamental grounding in American history and jurisprudence. Accordingly, Indiana claims that the Excessive Fines Clause does not apply against the states because in rem forfeitures have been common throughout American history, and courts have not recognized a proportionality requirement for state in rem forfeitures until the end of the twentieth century.
APPLYING THE EXCESSIVE FINES CLAUSE AGAINST THE STATES THROUGH THE PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES CLAUSE
Timbs argues that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, which protects citizens’ fundamental rights, provides an alternative framework for applying the Excessive Fines Clause against the states. Timbs notes that the Privileges and Immunities Clause was understood at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification to apply fundamental rights enumerated in the Constitution against the states. Timbs contends that freedom from excessive fines fits within the Privileges and Immunities Clause because it is enumerated in the Constitution and was regarded as fundamental long before the Constitution’s ratification.
In contrast, Indiana maintains that the Court should not consider whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause because the Court has long used the Due Process framework to decide whether certain rights and protections were incorporated against the states. Indiana notes that the analysis under the Privileges and Immunities Clause would largely be the same—namely, analyzing the historical evidence to determine whether the right at issue is fundamental and deeply rooted in the American legal system. Indiana also points out that changing the doctrinal basis of applying constitutional rights against the states would create unpredictable consequences and confuse lower courts and state and local governments. For example, Indiana emphasizes that the Privileges and Immunities Clause protects “citizens of the United States”, while the Due Process Clause applies to “any person”. Indiana contends that changing the doctrinal basis of incorporation from the Due Process Clause to the Privileges and Immunities Clause would lead people to wonder which constitutional rights apply only to citizens.
BALANCING ECONOMIC INTERESTS AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS
Judicial Watch, Inc. and Allied Educational Foundation, in support of Timbs, argue that unless the Excessive Fines Clause is applied to the states, state and local governments will improperly use forfeiture laws to raise revenue without raising taxes. They assert that by using forfeiture laws liberally in an attempt to fill state coffers, the government risks punishing innocent people—particularly where forfeitures are applied to individuals who have not been criminally convicted. The Pacific Legal Foundation, in support of Timbs, similarly maintains that if the Excessive Fines Clause is not incorporated against the states, state and local governments will push the boundaries of forfeiture law and take individuals’ property as a forfeiture even where it is neither an instrumentality nor a product of criminal activity. The American Civil Liberties Union and other non-profit organizations (“ACLU”), also in support of Timbs, further claim that state and local governments’ increased reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures as a revenue source disparately affects society’s most vulnerable populations—impoverished, low-income individuals—by imposing upon them an unmanageable financial burden. When poor Americans are unable to pay excessive fines and fees, the ACLU contends, they fall deeper into debt and face harsh consequences such as driver’s license suspension, denial of occupational licenses, and even incarceration.
Indiana counters that in rem forfeitures of property are different than in personam fines because forfeitures are not in fact penalties. Accordingly, while Indiana concedes that forfeitures often produce “draconian consequences” for even innocent people, it maintains that imposing forfeitures against the innocent is not an improper risk because it is not a punishment. In fact, Indiana contends, courts have routinely imposed forfeitures against innocent property owners who had no involvement or even awareness of the criminal activity justifying the forfeiture. Indiana also argues that property forfeiture does not deprive individuals of their liberty or cause people to be incarcerated because they cannot pay the fines assessed against them. Indiana emphasizes that property forfeitures differ from fines because forfeitures, by definition, target property already seized and do not allow the government to demand additional payments from individuals. Thus, Indiana reasons that the worst possible consequence of a property forfeiture proceeding is simply that the property owner loses his property. This loss of property, Indiana maintains, is not problematic because the Excessive Fines Clause is centrally concerned with preventing judges from incarcerating individuals because of unpayable discretionary fines.
IMPACT ON THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting individual liberties, in support of Timbs, argue that allowing state and local governments to seize assets—and to profit from that seizure—creates a perverse incentive for the government to “err on the side of seizure.” This incentive structure, they maintain, causes police officers to enforce the law in a way that is most likely to yield a profit for the government, even if doing so is against the community’s best interest. The ACLU similarly asserts that unchecked fines, fees, and forfeitures directly impede the community’s interests in reducing criminal recidivism and in promoting public safety. The ACLU contends that excessive fines and fees force people within the criminal justice system to decide between using their scarce resources to support their livelihood and, alternatively, diverting those resources towards payment. Accordingly, the ACLU maintains, excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures threaten these individuals’ efforts to successfully reintegrate into their communities. Judicial Watch, Inc. and Allied Educational Foundation further argue that when the government routinely seizes assets, this penalty loses its deterrence value, further undermining the community’s interest in assessing such penalties.
The National Association of Counties and similar organization (“NACo”), in support of Indiana, argue that property forfeiture advances legitimate governmental objectives and the community’s interest in deterring illegal activity. First, the NACo asserts that by seizing property that was used in connection with illegal activity, the government can prevent other illicit use of that particular property. Second, the NACo contends that through property forfeiture, the government renders future illegal behavior unprofitable because of the associated economic penalty. NACo further argues that it is in the community’s interest for the government to impose substantial financial penalties on individuals who engage in illegal conduct, such as drug trafficking, that poses a significant threat to public health and welfare. This is particularly in the community’s interest, NACo maintains, because many states and localities lack the financial resources to imprison individuals who engage in this type of criminal behavior.
- Bernadette Meyler, How Much Power do States Have? Supreme Court Holds the Answer, The Hill (Nov. 8, 2018).
- Matt Ford, Will the Supreme Court Rein in Civil Forfeiture?, The New Republic (Apr. 17, 2018).