This post was authored by Paul Knothe.

On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Timbs v. Indiana, holding for the first time that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to civil forfeiture by state law enforcement agencies.  It did not, however, decide how large a forfeiture constitutes an unconstitutionally “excessive” fine.

The term “civil asset forfeiture” refers to the practice of law enforcement agencies seizing property, such as cars, weapons, or cash from crime suspects when there is probable cause to believe the assets are being used for criminal activity.   Under certain circumstances, agencies have been able to retain the value of those assets, and for some agencies, civil asset forfeiture has become a significant source of funding.  In recent years, this practice has garnered increased public attention and controversy, centered largely on the fact that the standard for seizing property does not require a criminal conviction.

In the Timbs case, plaintiff Tyrone Timbs was arrested for selling heroin, and the police seized his Land Rover, which he had recently purchased for approximately $42,000 with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.  Timbs subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, including a court-supervised addiction treatment program.

Following Timbs’ guilty plea, the trial court denied the State of Indiana’s action for forfeiture of the Land Rover.  The court found that the vehicle had been used to facilitate Timbs’ crime.  However, it noted that the maximum monetary fine available under state law for Timbs’ conviction was $10,000, and that seizing the vehicle, worth more than four times that amount, was grossly disproportionate and therefore violated the Excessive Fines clause of the Eighth Amendment of the federal constitution.  The Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”  The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed this ruling.

The Indiana Supreme Court, however, reversed the ruling, holding that the Excessive Fines clause applies only to the federal government, and not to the states.  When the U.S. Constitution was originally drafted, the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government.  Following the Civil War, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extended application of most of the Bill of Rights to the states.  The Supreme Court had not yet answered whether this included the Excessive Fines clause.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the excessive fines clause does apply to the states.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the main opinion of the Court, expressly stating that the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justices Gorsuch and Thomas each wrote separately, arguing that the Excessive Fines Clause should instead be incorporated through the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Although the Supreme Court held that the Excessive Fines clause does apply to the states, it did not decide whether the seizure of the Land Rover constituted an excessive fine.  Instead, it remanded that question to the Indiana Supreme Court.   Under existing law, a forfeiture constitutes an unconstitutional fine if it is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense, determined by reference to four factors: (1) the nature and extent of the crime, (2) whether the violations was related to other illegal activities, (3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation, and (4) the extent of the harm caused.   (See People v. Estes (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th Supp. 14, 21; U.S. v. Bajakajian (1998) 524 U.S. 321, 337-40.)

The Timbs decision does not dramatically change the landscape for California agencies, because the California Constitution also prohibits excessive fines.  However, given the public attention being paid to this topic, we expect further development of the law on the question of what constitutes an excessive fine in the asset forfeiture context.