Supreme Court Holds That Eighth Amendment’s Prohibition Of Excessive Fines And Related Forfeitures Applies To The States

February 20, 2019

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Decided February 20, 2019

Timbs v. Indiana, No. 17-1091 

The Supreme Court held 9-0 that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to the States.

After Tyson Timbs pled guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, an Indiana state trial court considered Indiana’s request for civil forfeiture of his Land Rover, which he used to transport heroin.  The trial court denied the request, reasoning that forfeiture of the vehicle would be grossly disproportionate to Timbs’s offense, and thus impermissible under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause, because Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000—far more than the maximum $10,000 fine assessable against him for the drug conviction.  The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to only the federal government, not the States.

Does the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause apply to the States?

Court’s Holding:
Yes.  The Excessive Fines Clause is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 767 (2010), and therefore applies to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

“[T]he historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the unanimous Court

What It Means:

  • The Court ruled that the Constitution’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose fines and seize property for forfeiture.
  • The opinion imposes a new constitutional constraint on more than thirty States that have not already incorporated the Excessive Fines Clause (e.g., Michigan, New York, and Virginia), limiting their ability to levy fines and forfeitures, which are often key sources of revenue for state and local governments.
  • The Court did not address when a fine is impermissibly “excessive” under the Eighth Amendment.  It noted, however, that the lineage of the Excessive Fines Clause traces back to the Magna Carta, which generally required economic sanctions to be proportionate to the underlying wrong.
  • The opinion gives defendants in suits brought by state and local governments a potential new defense to excessive fines and penalties.

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Related Practices: Anti-Money Laundering, Forfeiture, White Collar Defense, and Investigations

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