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Understanding the Supreme Court’s Recent Ruling in Limiting Civil Forfeiture

Today, the Supreme Court that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (which bars “excessive fines”) places limits on the ability of states to take and keep property used to commit crimes. This practice is called civil forfeiture, and has been used by states, particularly law enforcement, to raise money through confiscations. These confiscations include cash, cars, houses and other private property used to commit crimes.

A civil forfeiture does not require a criminal conviction or even criminal charges. A civil forfeiture only requires proof that the property at issue was used in connection with a crime. Owners who want to reclaim their property must show that the property at issue was not used in connection with a crime or that it was used without their knowledge.

The case at bar involves a small-time drug offender, Tyson Timbs, who plead guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police officers. Timbs was sentenced to one year of house arrest, five years of probation, and was ordered to pay $1,200 in fees and fines.

State Officials, however, also seized Timbs’s $42,000 Land Rover, which he had bought with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy. The State Officials reasoned that such seizure was proper because Timbs had used the vehicle to commit crimes

The Supreme Court sided with Timbs, in a 9-to-0 decision, ruling that the Eighth Amendment limits the ability of the federal government to seize property and that this limitation also applied to states.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing for the Court in its unanimous decision, said the Constitution protects against excessive fines, but left the determination of what constitutes “too much” to lower courts.

Investigations across the country have uncovered many examples where the property seized was disproportionate to the crime or taken from innocent citizens. This new ruling will limit excessive fines, such as in Timbs’ case. However, people are subject to civil forfeiture of their property even without being convicted of a crime. The recent ruling will now allow a person to argue that, “whether I’m guilty or not, the fine was excessive.”

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