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RBG Returns to the Bench for Ruling on Excessive Seizure of Property by States

by Daveda Gruber:

On Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that marked the first time the court has applied the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines at the state level.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court’s opinion and read a summary of her opinion in the courtroom.

The 85-year-old justice missed arguments last month following lung cancer surgery, but returned to the bench on Tuesday.

The outcome could help efforts to rein in police seizure of property from criminal suspects.

Ginsburg’s opinion piece was in favor of Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana. Police seized Timbs’ $40,000 Land Rover when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.

Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence” because fines are a source of revenue.

Ginsburg wrote, “Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties. They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue.”

Timbs had twice previously sold drugs to undercover officers. The Land Rover was purchased with money Timbs received from his father’s life insurance policy after his death in 2012.

After his arrest, Timbs pleaded guilty to one count of dealing in a controlled substance. He was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, and had to pay court fees and fines totaling $1,200.

A trial court in Indiana and the Indiana Court of Appeals found that taking the Land Rover would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of Timbs’ offense and unconstitutional under the Constitution’s excessive fines clause.

The trial judge noted Timbs’ vehicle was worth roughly four times the maximum monetary fine of $10,000 the state could have levied against him for his crimes.

The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, and said the Supreme Court “has never held that the states are subject to the Excessive Fines Clause.”

The SCOTUS ruling was unanimous and Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion outlining different reasons for reaching the same conclusion. He wrote that “the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the ‘privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States’ protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Ginsburg’s opinion was based on the due process clause of the same amendment.

The Supreme Court sent the case of Tyson Timbs back to a lower court to decide if Indiana officials went too far in seizing Timbs’ Land Rover.

The high court’s ruling could now limit the ability for states and cities to carry out an increasingly common practice of imposing steep fines and seizing property.