A lower-court decision that found states could impose any fine they want, including a $40,000 hit for a minor drug violation, will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the legal team is contesting the decision by the state of Indiana to confiscate the man’s $40,000 truck, which was upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court .
The trial court had rejected the state’s demand for a “civil forfeiture” because the punishment would be “grossly disproportional” to the offense.
That would, the court found, and the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.
However, the state Supreme Court upheld the truck seizure, even though Tyson’s offense had been, while he suffered from a drug addiction, to sell a small amount of drugs to undercover police.
IJ said the vehicle had been purchased by Timbs from the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.
But when he was arrested for selling less than $200 worth of drugs to undercover officers, the state of Indiana claimed the truck.
“Without my car, it is incredibly difficult to do all the things the government wants me to do to stay clean, like visit my probation officer, go to AA, and keep my job,” he said. “Right now, I’m borrowing my aunt’s car to go to work so we can pay the bills, and she has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis appointments. You need a car to do all of these things.”
He said the punishment was disproportionate.
“I just want to get my vehicle back and keep my life on track,” he said.
“This case is about more than just a truck,” Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to intervene.
“The Excessive Fines Clause is a critical check on the government’s power to punish people and take their property. Without it, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or – using civil forfeiture – no crime at all.”
IJ attorney Sam Gedge noted forfeiture is a controversial law-enforcement tool.
“In states like Indiana, police and prosecutors can keep up to 100 percent of proceeds taken through forfeiture, proceeds they can then use for nicer offices and vehicles, and even for their own pay,” he said.
“This direct financial incentive gives the government a perverse incentive to abuse this power, which is exactly what is happening in Tyson’s case with this excessive fine. Police and prosecutors have every incentive to maximize their own profit, and, unless we have federal protections against excessive fines, no one’s property is safe.”
The practice actually isn’t new with the Indiana case.
IJ pointed out the Justice Department has determined that city officials in Pagdale, Missouri, have “consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for … law enforcement activity.”
The city’s roughly 3,000 residents, IJ said, have been “heavily fined for trivial offenses like missing curtains, aging paint, walking on the left side of crosswalks, and enjoying a beer within 150 feet of a grill.”
“And in Charlestown, Indiana, local officials imposed crippling fines on low-income homeowners to force them to sell their land to a private developer.”
Scott Bullock, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, said the case “will make constitutional history.”
“Governments increasingly use excessive fines and fees, including through the pernicious practice of civil forfeiture, to fund law enforcement agencies and to pad city budgets,” he said. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one. This case has the potential to give meaningful protection to individuals in every state in the land from these abuses and to limit government’s ability to turn law enforcement into revenue generators.”
The Eighth Amendment’s requirements are simple: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The position requested from the U.S. Supreme Court, the pleading argues, already has been adopted in the Eighth and Ninth circuits, as well as the supreme courts in Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia.