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.

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Photo of Paul D. Knothe Paul D. Knothe

Paul Knothe practices in Liebert Cassidy Whitmore’s Los Angeles office where he advises and represents public agency and community college clients in employment law, with an emphasis on public safety issues.

Paul advises public safety agencies on complex and cutting-edge issues arising from…

Paul Knothe practices in Liebert Cassidy Whitmore’s Los Angeles office where he advises and represents public agency and community college clients in employment law, with an emphasis on public safety issues.

Paul advises public safety agencies on complex and cutting-edge issues arising from police reform legislation, including the transparency laws reducing traditional Pitchess protections and exposing peace officer personnel records to disclosure in response to Public Records Act requests.  He is a dynamic public speaker and provides training to law enforcement leaders on these reforms.  Paul is also well versed in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (“POBRA”) and handles sensitive disciplinary issues and high-profile civil litigation and disciplinary appeal cases regarding claims of uses of force, off-duty misconduct, and discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  Paul serves as a member of LCW’s Public Safety Practice Group Executive Committee.

A seasoned litigator, Paul defends clients in state and federal courts at both the trial and appellate levels. He has successfully defended agencies in collective action, multi-plaintiff, and single-plaintiff employment matters.  Paul litigates a full range of employment law matters including alleged discrimination, harassment, retaliation, POBRA, and wage and hour issues.   He manages all aspects of litigation, from case assessment and pre-trial motion practice, through all forms of discovery proceedings, and settlement, to trial.

Additionally, Paul conducts thorough workplace investigations, with a focus on high-profile incidents or allegations against senior management personnel.