Supreme Court strikes a blow for liberty

  • 27 February 2019
  • NormanL

The U.S. Supreme Court made a little history recently, and in doing so, struck a blow for liberty. The court ruled unanimously the 8th Amendment ban against excessive fines applies to state and local governments, as well as the feds.

The Institute for Justice has more. As often happens, the ruling arose out of a criminal case:

Indiana resident Tyson Timbs is at the center of this legal fight. His road to the U.S. Supreme Court began shortly after his father died, when he received more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds and bought a new car. For years, Tyson had struggled with drug addiction; a painkiller prescription had escalated to heroin abuse. Soon after buying his new car, Tyson sold four grams of heroin to fund his addiction. The purchasers were undercover officers, and police arrested Tyson. They seized his car too.

Tyson pleaded guilty to one count of drug dealing, which led to house arrest, then probation, and $1,200 in related fees. Most importantly, the arrest was a wake-up call for Tyson. He got his life back on track, holding down a job and taking steps to battle his addiction.

The State of Indiana was more interested in Tyson’s car, a Land Rover worth $40,000.

Within months of Tyson’s arrest, the state filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit to take title to the Land Rover. But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed.

Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana Supreme Court said, “we will not impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court removed any doubt that the Excessive Fines Clause applies fully to Indiana and every other state. Writing for eight of the Court’s nine Justices, Justice Ginsburg emphasized that, “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, as the Stuarts’ critics learned several centuries ago. Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a State money.’ This concern is scarcely hypothetical” (legal citations omitted).

This is, indeed, an excellent legal outcome. For far too long, state and local governments have made fines and forfeitures into a revenue source, and nothing more. In some cases, this has lead to corruption. More broadly, it badly skews the incentives for law enforcement to apply the law equally. If the court's ruling helps break that pattern, then it's an even more welcome result.