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Supreme Court To Take Up Ban On Excessive Fines


The U.S. Supreme Court today is taking up one of the few remaining provisions in the Bill of Rights that is not yet applied to states - a ban on excessive fines. At issue here are laws that allow state and local governments to confiscate cars and cash and even homes if they are used in the commission of a crime - any crime. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Tyson Timbs wants his SUV returned.

TYSON TIMBS: They took my truck immediately. They took that the night that I was arrested, and they've had it ever since.

TOTENBERG: The police seized the 2012 Land Rover when Timbs was arrested in 2013 for selling a few grams of heroin to undercover cops for $400. Timbs pleaded guilty to one drug charge and was sentenced to a year of house arrest and five years of probation, plus $1,200 in fines and court fees.

But the state of Indiana wanted more. It wanted to keep the truck and sell it because it was used in the commission of a crime. The trial judge thought that was extreme and ruled that the state couldn't keep the truck. A court of appeals agreed that confiscating the truck was disproportionate. But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines does not apply to the states. Timbs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears arguments in his case today.

Indiana is defending what is known in legalese as civil forfeiture of the truck. The idea is that since the truck was used in the commission of a crime, it is, in essence, an instrument of the crime which justifies the seizure. Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher argues that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines was aimed at preventing fines so large that people would end up in prison, unable to pay.

In contrast, he says, civil forfeiture laws are technically against property - in this case, the Land Rover. Fisher says as long as the state can show by a preponderance of the evidence that the truck was used in the commission of a crime, the state can seize it.

THOMAS FISHER: It's just the property, and that's it.

TOTENBERG: But Tyson Timbs contends that the truck is much more than just property. He bought it for $42,000 with money from a life insurance policy after his father died. By then, he'd become addicted to oxycodone, prescribed for him to alleviate pain. And he eventually graduated to heroin. He moved to Marion, Ind., and moved in with his Aunt Wendy in hopes of kicking the habit, but he fell off the wagon, leading to his arrest. Eventually, he found a free treatment clinic, got clean and got a job as a machinist. But it's 35 miles away, so his Aunt Wendy lets him use her car.

TIMBS: You know, I've been lucky. Most people don't have an Aunt Wendy like I have. She's on dialysis three days a week. And because I have to use her car to go to work so we can pay bills, she has to take the bus back and forth to dialysis.

TOTENBERG: Timbs' lawyer, Wesley Hottot, will tell the Supreme Court today that the case is emblematic of the way civil forfeiture laws are used throughout the country as a mechanism to raise revenue for state and local governments.

WESLEY HOTTOT: Unless there is a limit on this power, what the excessive fines clause was meant to be, you will see more policing for profit and lots of abuse.

TOTENBERG: Indiana, he notes, allows prosecutors to outsource civil forfeiture cases to private lawyers for a percentage cut - a third to a fourth of the recovery. Civil forfeiture advocates defend the practice as a way to take property away from those who've used it in a crime and used the funds generated by selling the property for the public good. In any event, argues the state solicitor general, the founders never intended to prevent civil forfeitures by state governments.

FISHER: You know, removing offending property from the offensive use is something that governments have done since well before the founding.

TOTENBERG: But Timbs' lawyer contends that the system has been weaponized in modern times, alluding to the seizure of Timbs' truck, he adds...

HOTTOT: If that's enough to take someone's car, then it's enough to take someone's house if their grandson sells drugs on the street out in front of the house.

TOTENBERG: Over the last decade, state and local governments have seized cash and property valued at $3 billion under a Justice Department program that allows state and local governments to share proceeds with federal agencies. The Justice Department imposed some limits on the practice during the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has reversed those restrictions. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.