Supreme court curbs states' power to levy fines and seize property through civil forfeiture

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IANAL…google translate doesn’t seem to be functioning here, can someone break this down in a way a layman like myself can understand?


Any lawyerly Mutants care to speculate if this decision could apply to the stealth return of debtor’s prison via incarcerating people too poor to pay traffic tickets and court-imposed fines?


Basically, the state took a $40K car because of a crime that had a maximum fine of $10K. Therefore, he claimed the fine was excessive and disallowed by the 8th Amendment. The state said no, that’s only for federal law. The Supreme Court said, sorry, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment means it applies here too.


Oh God it just dawned on me. If they seize your car, they don’t also seize your loan. Guess who gets to keep paying for the car?


Nicely done, that’s a good sum up.

Basically this ruling ends civil forfeiture, and it’s nice to see the court can still find ground where it will rule unanimously. I’ve never understood how states could get away with taking property from folks, some of whom never end up being charged with a crime, and doing with it as they will.


The big and interesting thing here is what about civil forfeitures where no one is ever charged with a crime?

Ie., a cop pulls someone over, takes the $4K in cash that they “suspect may be the proceeds of a drug deal” (despite being in a bank envelope, having a receipt, and a printed Craigslist add for a new car for $4K, bring cash), but no charges are ever filed.

(Honestly, my opinion on the matter is that any seized property should not be used to enrich any part of government, along with any fines or court fees: The police department should NOT be a profit center.)

(Yes, I lived near New Rome, Ohio for 10 years. It probably changed my opinion on this.)


I wouldn’t count on it completely ending civil forfeiture, but I think it is a good start. The good thing is that while the “tough on crime at all costs even when the police are the criminals” contingent are going to be upset, there is no giant industry like private prisons or big pharma that will spend millions of lobbying dollars to get this changed.


You have my sincere sympathies.


Yeah. What made this case clear clear appears to be that he had pleaded guilty to a specific crime with a specific maximum penalty. It isn’t clear what would happen if he was never charged, but which they could invent an arbitrarily bad crime with an arbitrarily large sentence.


Especially because it neatly avoids even trying to work out what that State was actually saying in any detail.

I’d say that’s a good call because I can’t make head nor tail of it.

The State seems first to have argued that seizing a $40k car for a $10k wasn’t “excessive”.

The Indiana Supreme Court then seems to have decided off its own bat to say that the Excessive Fines Clause didn’t apply to the State at all.

Having had that ruling, the State seems to have tried to keep it alive somehow by some weird argument that I don’t understand at all about civil forfeiture being ok because it’s not a fundamental or deep-rooted breach of the right granted by the Excessive Fines Clause.

Is that halfway right as a summary of their argument? I don’t know…

Either way the Supreme Court definitely told them to get lost.


I’m not finding anything on a search about how you default on a loan and give up the collateral when the collateral has been seized. I would guess the loan provider would just write off the debt if they couldn’t get the collateral from the government and your credit score would be trashed.


Summary of the state’s argument, courtesy of

For its part, Indiana suggests that the excessive fines clause doesn’t apply to Timbs’ case at all because he is complaining about the forfeiture of property used to violate the law, known as an “in rem” forfeiture, which was not traditionally regarded as a penalty. The excessive fines clause, Indiana contends, applies only to payments imposed as punishment. This is consistent, the state explains, with the problem that the excessive fines clause was intended to target, which was “to prevent judges from incarcerating individuals on the basis of unpayable discretionary fines.”


Very helpful thanks.

Ending egregious civil forfeiture is good. Curious to see what effect this may have on State’s efforts to prosecute Trump & Co. outside of the Mueller investigation.


I’m glad to see that the ruling was unanimous, and glad to see Justice Thomas specifically mention “well documented abuses” of civil asset forfeiture for profit. That could be setting the table for a broader ruling on the constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture in general, which I don’t think this ruling does. But IANAL (yet…plans are in place), so I could be and probably am wrong.


There are vanishingly few Supreme Court cases that are anything other than “a good start”, no matter what your policy goals; stuff like this is far more common because most questions aren’t merely either/or – Obergefell is a rare one that said, “the rule that said no gay marriage is wrong, now gay marriage is a-okay” – most are “hey, on this narrow edge of this important issue, we’re moving the line in just a bit.”



This is a big step in the right direction. But they need to go ahead and outlaw the very concept of civil forfeiture. All over the country, police forces have used it to become state-licensed road agents. A rule that says “Your money is guilty until you spend yourself into the poorhouse to prove it innocent” doesn’t just violate but stomps all over due process.


None whatever. They won’t use civil forfeiture on someone they know can afford lawyers to give them a run for the money. The whole point of civil forfeiture is revenue, not justice.


Ginsburg did some masterful reasoning here, in not reaching the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Instead, she labeled the forfeiture as a fine, opined that the Due Process Clause alone incorporates the Eighth Amendment against the states, and further found that imposition of such a fine in excess of the legislatively established maximum offends against the Eighth Amendment.

This leaves the Privileges and Immunities clause in reserve against further abuses - it’s instead treading on familiar ground already explored in the context of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

In framing it as a due process issue, it also sends a clear warning about forfeiture in the absence of a commissionconviction. If the forfeiture is held to be a fine (rather than an administrative civil suit against property), and an excessive forfeiture offends against the Eighth Amendment, then a forfeiture without a conviction is surely a more grievous offense against the Fourth (unreasonable seizure) and Fifth (deprivation of property without due process of law) - which are already held to be incorporated against the states.

The linchpin of the argument is the recognition that property cannot commit a crime, so the forfeiture, whatever the legal fiction, is a fine against a property owner. This goes against ancient jurisprudence, which was based at least partly on magical reasoning: if something was used in a crime or resulted as the proceeds of a crime, it became tainted and must be destroyed or purged. (The sword that was used in a murder must be broken; a horse that trampled a person, even accidentally, must be put down; a felon’s property must be taken and purged by being given to Crown or Church.)

EDITED: typo lined out and corrected.