How a Land Rover SUV Raised a Constitutional Question
Less than a week ago, the Supreme Court ruled on a case where the parties were a 2012 Land Rover LR2 and the State of Indiana. The case, Timbs v. Indiana, challenged state and local practices of civil forfeiture, and the Court’s ruling will guard against profit-centered policing and strengthen constitutional protections of property rights.
In 2013, Tyson Timbs pled guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. After his father passed away, Timbs received around $73,000 in life insurance, $42,000 of which was used to purchase the Land Rover SUV. The rest supported a drug addiction that resurfaced after his father’s death. Timbs used his Land Rover to buy and sell drugs, including an instance in which he sold $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. He was sentenced to a year of house arrest and five years of probation and paid $1,200 in additional fines and fees. Indiana then seized Timbs’ Land Rover under the state’s civil forfeiture law, justifying its actions based on Timbs using his car to buy and sell drugs.
Since then, Timbs has reintegrated into society, though no longer owning his car has complicated the process. In a press release from the Institute for Justice, his legal representatives, Timbs said, “Taking my vehicle makes things unnecessarily difficult for a person like me, who already struggles. 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? You need a car to do all these things. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.” Timbs currently works at a factory 40 minutes from his home and borrows his aunt’s car to commute to work.
Timbs filed suit against Indiana, arguing that the seizure of his SUV violated an Eighth Amendment prohibition against “excessive fines.” The Grant County Superior Court ruled in Timbs’s favor, holding that the seizure was “grossly disproportionate to the gravity” of his crime, given that the value of the Land Rover SUV was four times the $10,000 maximum fine for Timbs’ crimes and 35 times the $1,200 fine he actually paid. While the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the Superior Court’s ruling, the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed its decision, holding that the Eighth Amendment only prevents the federal government from imposing excessive fines, not state and local governments.
This gap between federal and state governments has enabled widespread abuses of civil forfeiture, which allow the police to seize and then keep or sell any property allegedly involved in a crime, whether civil or criminal, misdemeanor or felony. Property owners never need to be arrested or convicted for the state to permanently seize their property, including cash, cars, and homes. While civil forfeiture, as enacted by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, was originally used against large-scale criminal networks, it has since become a method for the police to benefit their bottom lines and prioritize profit over people.
State and local courts, as well as law enforcement, have increasingly used fines, fees, and forfeitures to raise government revenue and fund criminal legal systems. In 2017, 10 million people owed over $50 billion in fines, fees, and forfeitures. Since 2010, 48 states have increased civil and criminal fees. The United States Chamber of Commerce found “60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a ‘necessary’ part of their budget.”
Civil forfeiture disproportionately impacts already over-policed, low-income communities of color, which lack legal and financial resources to contest state seizure of property that sometimes may not cost as much as legal battles with the state. Fees, fines, and forfeitures “are being used to bridge the gulf between diminished public funding and the costs of an expanding justice system.”
Although the Eighth Amendment prohibits “excessive fines,” the protections in the Bill of Rights do not immediately apply to state and local governments and can only be made applicable through incorporation by the Supreme Court, which became the central question in Timbs v. Indiana.
The Supreme Court has now answered, holding that the Eighth Amendment is incorporated to the states using the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, representing a unanimous court, wrote, “The protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.” Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas filed separate concurring opinions, both arguing that incorporation should happen using the Fourteenth Amendment’s privileges and immunities clause. Notably, this clause applies to only citizens, while the due process clause applies to “any person.”
Through Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court has undoubtedly bolstered property rights and moved the needle of policing away from profiteers to people. However, it is only a fraction of holding police accountable and preventing abusive practices by law enforcement. To get to the heart of the issue, it might be worthwhile to consider why the criminal legal system has ballooned to the point where it needs to fund itself through a practice as easily abused as civil forfeiture.