Oral Argument: Excessive Fines and the States

The Court heard arguments in Timbs v. Indiana on Wednesday November 28, 2018, in which the Court is being asked to decide whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. Before discussing the case and arguments made by both sides, here is a quick primer on background information to help the question in Timbs make more sense:

  •      The Eighth Amendment states “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Excessive Fines Clause portion of the amendment limits the government’s power to punish an offense by taking payments in cash or in kind. The underlying principle is that the amount taken must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense being punished. Justia has more background on the Excessive Fines Clause.
  • The Eighth Amendment, like all of the Bill of Rights, applies to the federal government, but the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, limits the powers of the states to violate people’s rights. Through a doctrine known as incorporation (click here for more on the incorporation doctrine), most of the Bill of Rights has been made fully applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. This is why, for example, state and local governments cannot constitutionally violate individuals’ First Amendment or Fourth Amendment rights (among others). The Eighth Amendment, however, has been made only partially applicable because the Excessive Fines Clause has not been incorporated. Whether it should be is at issue in this case.

Tyson Timbs pled guilty to dealing heroin and conspiracy to commit theft and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation. A private law firm also filed a civil forfeiture case to seize Timbs’ Land Rover LR2 on behalf of the State of Indiana. The trial court found that, because the cost of the vehicle was about four times the maximum monetary fine for Timbs’ crimes, the forfeiture should be considered unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, acknowledging that the United States Supreme Court had not yet held that the Excessive Fines Clause applicable to the States, but held that its own precedent supported its application in state forfeiture proceedings. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, and the Supreme Court will now take up the case.

In an article explaining the civil proceedings in which Timbs’ vehicle was seized in more detail, Ilya Somin at Reason discusses why he thinks the arguments in Timbs suggest that the Court will hold that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, calling such an outcome (potentially) a “big win for property rights and civil liberties.” Mark Stern at Slate wrote that Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch “came out swinging” against civil asset forfeiture in their questioning of Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher. Coverage in the New York Times and CNBC also agrees that the Clause is likely to be applied to the states. As Hot Air explains, “Rarely does oral argument before the Court go so badly for one side that legal observers will dare to say afterward that the other is likely to win.”

This post was written by ISCOTUS Fellow Zoe Arthurson-McColl, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, with contributions from ISCOTUS Fellow Eva Dickey, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, edited by Matthew Webber, ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, and overseen by ISCOTUS Co-Director Carolyn Shapiro.

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