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Does the Constitution’s ‘excessive fines’ clause apply to states?


Does the Constitution’s ‘excessive fines’ clause apply to states?

On behalf of Patrick T. McNally, Attorney at Law | 
November 27, 2018

In 2015, Tyson Timbs pled guilty to heroin charges and sentenced to five years’ detention and probation. However, since his 2012 Land Rover was allegedly used to transport the drugs, the state of Indiana seized it as property that had been involved in crime. The vehicle was worth approximately $42,000 — four times the maximum fine the state could impose for the crime he committed. The trial judge and an appeals court ruled that the seizure violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines.”

The Indiana Supreme Court had a different interpretation. Among several conclusions, it ruled that Indiana could not be held to account for violating the excessive fines clause because that clause only applies to the federal government. If that is true, states could impose whatever fines they want, no matter how excessive, without violating the Eighth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case and will hear oral arguments this week.

Doesn’t the Bill of Rights apply to the states?

For much of U.S. history, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) applied only to the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court later held that, since the 14th Amendment guarantees all citizens due process and equal protection under the law, states are required to comply with many of the Bill of Rights’ requirements. States are not allowed, for example, to violate the Fifth Amendment’s search and seizure protections.

That said, the Supreme Court has never specifically ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states. This case could change that.

Does having your property seized count as a fine?

The state of Indiana also argues that the seizure of Mr. Timbs’ Land Rover was not a fine at all. When property is used to violate the law, it contends, it can be seized “in rem,” meaning that the seizure is not intended as a punishment. Since the seizure was not meant as a penalty, the “excessive fines” clause doesn’t apply in this case.

That said, the Supreme Court may not see much of a logical distinction between an “in rem” seizure and one that is officially meant as a fine. While there may be a legal distinction, the impact of a seizure on the defendant — and on the state — appear to be the same.

Timbs’ position is supported by a wide range of interest groups. Diverse players such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others urged the court to hold the “excessive fines” clause applies in cases like this one.

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