It is not often that a unanimous Supreme Court decision makes its way into the national news. While there is no shortage of 9-0 rulings, they mostly concern issues regarded as mundane. The Supreme Court’s most recent decision concerning civil asset forfeiture marks one of the few times in recent memory that a “hot button” issue has resulted in a unanimous ruling. The court found that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments and not just at the federal level.
The case revolved around Tyson Timbs of Indiana. Timbs was arrested for selling $400-worth of heroin and pled guilty to drug dealing and conspiracy to commit theft. While Indiana state law sets a $10,000 maximum fine for the drug conviction, the courts forced him to forfeit his Land Rover SUV, which was valued at $42,000. He appealed to the Indiana State Supreme Court, which ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause didn’t apply to the states. This interpretation was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
This decision is based on a very simple principle. That is the idea that people who commit crimes should not be subjected to punishments, whether they be fines or jail time, that greatly exceed the nature of their crime. Our country was founded in part on this basis, as the Framers of the Constitution considered preventing “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishment” important enough to be included in the Bill of Rights. In light of this, it is frankly surprising that it took so long for these protections to be extended to the state and local levels.
Beyond individual protections, why is this ruling so important? Well, many state and local municipalities use fines as a mechanism for raising revenue. Under civil forfeiture laws, this practice isn’t even that difficult. Police can actually seize a person’s property without proving they were guilty of a crime. All that’s necessary is probable cause that the assets they seize are being used as part of a criminal activity. As the police believed Timbs was using his Land Rover as part of his heroin dealing, they were able to justify its confiscation.
While there are some cases where civil asset forfeiture is acceptable, the practice is rife with opportunities for abuse. The vague justifications required to impose civil forfeiture are highly problematic. There are several documented cases where people were driving around with cash that was confiscated based on little-to-no evidence of criminal activity. The people in question were only able to retain their property after drawn-out court cases. When police and local governments are able to absorb the value of confiscated property, this practice becomes monetarily incentivized. Arrests and property seizure should not be motivated by desire for profit; they should be based on if they will protect citizens.
While there are many dangers when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, it is still important to strike a balance when it comes to the law. When the concept was originally introduced, it was presented as a way to cripple large criminal enterprises. Banning forfeiture outright might tie the hands of law enforcement when it comes to taking down some of these larger organizations. The current law absolutely needs to be adjusted, but there is a case to be made that forfeiture should still be allowed in some circumstances.
Certainly, police departments should be prevented from keeping profits associated with the property they confiscate. Furthermore, local governments shouldn’t be relying on forfeiture to balance their budget. Not only are these particular practices fiscally irresponsible, but they compromise an individual’s right to property. The solution to this conundrum won’t come from a Supreme Court decision, but will instead require the efforts of policymakers around the country.
The extension of the 8th Amendment to non-federal levels is a good first step towards ensuring a fairer justice system in the United States. But this is by no means the end of the fight. Civil asset forfeiture is just one of many policing practices that needs to be reworked. Minimum mandatory sentencing is still an issue, as are bail practices in many areas of the country. Reforming the system will take time, and require efforts from those in law enforcement, politicians and community members.
Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.