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Supreme Court: 'Excessive fines' prohibition may apply to states

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." An Indiana man is testing the excessive fines rule by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. The problem? The high court has never held that the "excessive fines" clause applies to the states.

It may surprise you to learn that the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) hasn't always applied to the states, but it's true. It wasn't until the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed everyone due process and equal protection of the law that the Supreme Court began applying the requirements of the Bill of Rights to the states. Still, while most of those requirements have specifically been applied to the states, there are a few that haven't had a hearing yet. The excessive fines clause is one of those.

After he pled guilty to selling about $400 of heroin, an Indiana court sentenced Tyson Timbs to a year of home confinement and five years of probation. The state also initiated a civil forfeiture proceeding. Such proceedings allow the state to seize any property it deems to have been connected to crime, with only limited recourse for defendants.

Indiana seized Timbs' Land Rover, which was worth over $40,000. Noting that the maximum fine allowable for Timbs' crime was only $10,000, the trial judge called the seizure "grossly disproportional" to the crime and ruled that it violated the excessive fines clause. The Indiana Supreme Court saw it differently.

Before the Supreme Court, Indiana indeed argued that the excessive fines clause has never been applied to the states -- and therefore does not apply to the states. Furthermore, it contended that the forfeiture does not qualify as a "fine" for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment because it was an "in rem" forfeiture not traditionally regarded as a criminal penalty.

At oral arguments recently, several justices seemed to fall on the side of Mr. Timbs. For example, when Indiana's solicitor general suggested that the excessive fines clause should remain one of the few things in the Bill of Rights that does not apply to the states, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, "Come on, general."

Civil forfeiture may not be expressly intended as a penalty, but it's hard to imagine what other purpose it purports to serve. The court should apply the clause to the states and make clear that it covers excessive civil forfeitures, as well.

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