Legal Update May June 2019

The front section of a Land Rovre

Supreme Court Limits Excessive Forfeitures as Criminal Penalties

Larry E. Holtz, Esq.

Recently, in Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states cannot impose excessive fees, fines and forfeitures as criminal penalties. The Court’s decision underscores that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines” applies to states and localities as well as the federal government.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just back in court after lung cancer surgery, wrote the majority opinion and announced it from the bench. Said Justice Ginsburg, “The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law enforcement authority.” It is “both ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty’ and ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.’ ”

The ruling was a victory for Tyson Timbs who was convicted of selling close to $400 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. In a civil forfeiture proceeding, the State of Indiana seized his Land Rover® which he had purchased for about $42,000 with the money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The state sought forfeiture on the ground that Timbs used his Land Rover to transport the heroin.

In the Indiana state court proceedings, it was determined that, even if the requested forfeiture was excessive – constituting more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against Timbs for his drug conviction – the matter need not be decided for the Excessive Fines Clause does not apply to the states. The United States Supreme Court disagreed.

Here’s the question: “Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an ‘incorporated’ protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause?” In this case, the Court unanimously ruled that it is.

In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, the rights applied only to the Federal Government. “The constitutional amendments adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War,” however, “fundamentally altered our country’s federal system.” Today, with only “a handful” of exceptions, the US Supreme Court has held that “the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates the protections contained in the Bill of Rights, rendering them applicable to the States. According to the Court, a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated if it is deemed to be “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” Incorporated Bill of Rights guarantees are “enforced against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment according to the same standards that protect those personal rights against federal encroachment.” Thus, “if a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires.”

Here, in Timbs, the Court determined that, like the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and “excessive bail,” the protection against excessive fines “guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law enforcement authority.” This safeguard, held the Court, “is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘deep roots in our history and tradition.’ ”

Accordingly, the Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause is “incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Larry E. Holtz has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey; and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Presently, Mr. Holtz is the Managing Editor of Blue360° Media, the largest US provider of legal information which is solely focused on serving law enforcement.    

Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis. He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.