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High Court's Decision Could Rein In a Controversial Police Practice

Supreme Court rules that constitutional ban on high fines does apply to states
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 20, 2019 1:44 PM CST
Visitors wait to enter the Supreme Court as a winter snow storm hits the nation's capital making roads perilous and closing most Federal offices and all major public school districts, on Capitol Hill...   (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(Newser) – The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states, an outcome that could help efforts to rein in police seizure of property from criminal suspects—a practice that has dramatically increased in recent decades, the AP reports. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's opinion 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. Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines "out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence" because fines are a source of revenue. The 85-year-old justice missed arguments last month following lung cancer surgery, but returned to the bench on Tuesday.

Timbs pleaded guilty, but faced no prison time. The biggest loss was the Land Rover he bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality. A judge ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana's top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines—like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights—applies to states as well as the federal government. The case drew interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation. Timbs was represented by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice. (More on civil forfeiture here.)


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