WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states cannot impose excessive fines for a crime, on Wednesday morning.
The Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment protects Americans at the federal, state and local levels.
The ruling could help Marion, Indiana resident, Tyson Timbs, who is at the center of a legal fight with local police over a $40,000 Land Rover. Police Seized the Land Rover when they arrested him for selling a small quantity of heroin.
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.
The State of Indiana sought civil forfeiture of Timbs's vehicle, charging that the SUV was used to transport heroin.
“Taking my vehicle makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles," Timbs said. "To me it doesn’t make sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?
The decision could bolster efforts by police departments to take property from someone suspected of a crime. Police and prosecutors usually sell the property and keep the proceeds.
“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, said. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one."