The Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports. The ruling will support efforts to limit police confiscation of property belonging to someone suspected of a crime (police and prosecutors often keep the proceeds.)
In the case decided Wednesday, an Indiana man may be able to recover the $42,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion in an appeal from Tyson Timbs of Marion, In. Ginsburg read a summary of her opinion from the bench. She missed arguments last month, but returned to the bench Tuesday after an operation for lung cancer.
“The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” Ginsburg wrote. She said, “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies…”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “There can be no serious doubt that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the States to respect the freedom from excessive fines enshrined in the Eighth Amendment.”
Indiana argued to the high court that it could legally seize Timbs’ because it had been used to transport drugs. Timbs countered that requiring him to forfeit the $42,000 car – which he had purchased with proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy – would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, because the value of the vehicle was nearly four times the maximum fine that could have been imposed, Scotusblog.com reports.
The question before the justices was not whether the forfeiture of the Land Rover was constitutional, but whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to the states at all. State and local governments are watching the case closely, because fines and forfeitures have become a key source of revenue. bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, Scotusblog says.