Wearing a bow-tie and a new suit, Tyson Timbs showed up at the Supreme Court Wednesday hoping to get his Land Rover back.
"I'm feeling very good," he told ABC News on his way into the chamber. "This has been a very different experience for me with so much attention."
The 37-year-old recovering opioid addict from Indiana pleaded guilty to dealing drugs in 2013. After he was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a modest fine, the state seized his $42,000 SUV in an act of civil forfeiture that some civil rights advocates consider a “law enforcement Weapon of Mass Destruction.”
Timbs' attorney Wesley Hottot argued the seizure of the Land Rover violated the 8th Amendment's protection against excessive fines, a Constitutional guarantee that should be upheld in all states.
A majority of the justices seemed receptive to the idea.
"Isn't it too late in the day for this? Aren't all the Bill of Rights incorporated against the states?" queried Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
"Can we at least agree on that?" Justice Neil Gorsuch asked of Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher.
"Well, again, that depends," quipped Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher.
"Really? Come on, general," Gorsuch shot back in disbelief.
Civil asset forfeiture – the ability of authorities to seize private property used in a crime – has become a lucrative revenue source for states and a tool to exact punishment, in many cases without insomuch as a court hearing.
For decades, critics have panned the practice as “policing for profit” and an example of unchecked government overreach.
Timbs pleaded guilty to dealing drugs and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation. He was also assessed $1203 in fines and fees. The government kept his $42,000 Land Rover.
Timbs’ lawyers had previously argued that seizure of the vehicle was unconstitutional, amounting to an excessive fine. The maximum criminal fine for Timbs’ drug offense under Indiana law is $10,000.
“While the negative impact on our society of trafficking in illegal drugs is substantial, a forfeiture of approximately four times the maximum monetary fine is disproportional to Timbs’ illegal conduct,” the state trial court concluded, siding with Timbs.
Timbs’ lawyers contend the freedom from excessive fines – to include forfeiture of valuable personal property – is fundamental for all Americans.
“For ordinary citizens, the real-world consequences can be devastating,” they argue in their brief to the Supreme Court.
“The Excessive Fines Clause secures a single, unitary right: freedom from excessive economic sanctions that are at least partly punitive,” Timbs’ team claims. “To be sure, that right can be violated in countless ways, using countless tools; in this regard, governments are endlessly innovative, ‘with more and more civil laws bearing more and more extravagant punishments.’”
A state appeals court agreed that constitutional limits apply.
But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the decision, saying that Indiana could keep Timbs’ Land Rover because states are not required to abide by the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The panel explained that the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet weighed in on the matter.
The Supreme Court Justices on Wednesday seemed to grapple with how narrowly or broadly they should rule, sticking just to the application of the excessive fines clause to the states, or go further and say something specifically about civil asset forfeitures, which have become a lucrative revenue source and tool to exact punishment.
Justice Samuel Alito was the most skeptical of Timbs' claim, grappling with the definition of an "excessive" fine and how states would determine it. "What's the constitutional standard?" posited Alito.
Fisher argued that "forfeitures have been fixtures for hundreds of years" in the U.S. and are entirely different than fines.
"What if a state said that anyone who speeds needs to forfeit their car?" questioned Justice Stephen Breyer.
"There's no excessive fines issue there," said Fisher.
"Even if it was only 5-miles-an-hour over?" Breyer replied.
"Yes," said Fisher, "it's forfeitable."
"You're going to be wiping away centuries of precedent," warned Fisher.
Hottot has said the case boils down to some "constitutional housekeeping" and saying plainly that the 8th Amendment protection against excessive fines applies to all Americans in all states. He said the determination of the scope of what constitutes "excessive" could be sorted out by lower courts.
“The right Timbs claims is neither fundamental to nor deeply rooted in America’s legal tradition and therefore does not apply against the states,” lawyers for Indiana argued in their brief to the Supreme Court.
The state says civil asset forfeitures, which it concedes can often have a “draconian impact,” are a longstanding, legitimate practice in American history.
“The forfeiture action is entirely separate from any criminal prosecution,” the state argues, “because the state brings the action against the property itself,” not against the person.
“The validity of the forfeiture, therefore, turns not on Timbs’s culpability but on the [Land] Rover’s – because it was used to transport drugs for the purpose of drug dealing,” the Indiana lawyers argue. The state says the mere likelihood the Land Rover would be used again to commit a crime necessitated the seizure.
“Whether the Constitution would prohibit a hypothetical $40,000 criminal fine for Timbs’s crime is irrelevant,” Indiana’s lawyers contend.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision could be significant.
In the 26 states and District of Columbia that report forfeiture activity, law enforcement agencies collected more than $254 million in funds and property in 2012 alone, according to an analysis by the Institute for Justice, a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm.
“This is an incredibly important case,” said Christopher Riano, lecturer in constitutional law and government at Columbia University. “Historically, whenever the court takes these types of cases, the court does usually move to incorporate the federal guarantees against the states.”
If the court does rule that the constitutional protection against excessive fines applies to the states – and that Timbs was unfairly sanctioned – it would likely trigger action in states nationwide to move toward limits on civil asset forfeiture.
“Instead of simply saying you were transporting heroin and the state is seizing your vehicle,” Riano said, “a state would most likely have to go a little further and consider whether that seizure was excessive or prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. That would mean a hearing or evidentiary finding.”
It would also mean Timbs gets his Land Rover back.