The United States Supreme Court has finally taken steps to address the unconstitutional police practice of civil asset forfeiture being waged against citizens whether innocent and guilty. On Wednesday, the court unanimously ruled 9–0 after finding a ban of excessive fines, which is written into the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, applies to state and local authorities in their handling of a civilian private property — effectively limiting unjust police seizures across the nation.
The case, Timbs v. Indiana, focuses on a lawsuit Tyson Timbs filed against his state after pleading guilty to drug dealing and conspiracy to commit theft, which resulted in one year of home detention and five years of probation. This punishment, however, also resulted in unethical profits for both the state and police departments handling the investigation. After Timbs pleaded guilty, the Indiana court ordered the forfeiture of a Land Rover SUV which is valued at $42,000, according to estimates from The Washington Post. This car, reportedly paid through a family life insurance policy, costs over four times the maximum fine of $10,000 for charges of Timbs’ kind — thus making the seizure an unquestionably excessive fine.
The legal debate dissolved into whether states, like the federal government, are restricted from imposing excessive fines on their own citizens. The opposition was aligned with the belief of the Bill of Rights only applying at the federal level, suggesting state officials can simply override the accountability of the nation’s highest laws. This changed after the 14th Amendment extended their individual protections to prevent state overreach.
“The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority decision. “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties and can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. 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’.”
In these civil asset forfeiture cases, law enforcement conducts itself as a form of localised, for-profit tyranny whereby the monopolised use of force allows their institutions to simply declare a property is connected to a crime and seize it, sometimes without obtaining a warrant or demonstrating probable cause. This process is often employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as their handbooks specifically instruct officers how to avoid oversight gridlock in their obtaining of immigrant property that, upon case completion, can be sold for whatever deal their departments can get. In 2018, state and local agencies across the country received $400 million through the CAF process, according to The Justice Department’s own report.
This isn’t unique to just ICE, of course. It’s rather a systemic issue of legalised theft. An investigation from The Washington Post’s journalists Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow, and Steven Rich exposed a decades-long racket where police departments across the nation would pull-over cars suspected of various crimes to have their out-of-pocket cash seized despite no proof of committing a crime — thanks to the Justice Department’s socialist-sounding program on “Equitable Sharing” from 2010. “Those laws were meant to take a guy out for selling $1 million in cocaine or who was trying to launder large amounts of money,” said Mark Overton, the police chief overseeing drug busts across Bal Harbour, Florida. “It was never meant for a street cop to take a few thousand dollars from a driver by the side of the road.”
Another famous example includes former college student Charles Clarke who was at the airport when police took his life savings of $11,000 due to police reporting his bag “smelled like marijuana” despite never linking the boy to a crime. Clarke, like most of the aforementioned car-stop victims, were only able to receive their items back after subjecting themselves to the lengthy, costly bureaucratic process of the courts. Clarke was lucky enough to receive interest for his grievances, which sadly cannot be said of others. For a system called “policing for profit”, it ironically proves their crimes do pay.
In the case of Timbs, the police were simply making a routine argument by trying to claim the car was being used for heroin dealings which financially outweigh the maximum fine costs. In reality, Timbs only sold $225 worth of heroin products to undercover cops, so he’s hardly some kind of black market El Chapo figure. Regardless, the Supreme Court didn’t make a judgement as to whether this particular case was a justified fine — which is fair enough considering it’s a potential local crime which should be decided by local legal officials — but instead gave legal context as to whether states can judge excessive fine infringements based on the Constitution.
“This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” once wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in 2017, echoing this sentiment in his latest opinion on the case. “The appropriate vehicle for incorporation may well be the 14th Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause, rather than, as this court has long assumed, the Due Process Clause. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
This doesn’t mean the process is going to stop anytime soon, but it does have bipartisan oversight in the courts and, now, legitimises individual resistance across the states equally. Any step towards full protection for property rights should be a cause for celebration. “People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, they’re still going to have their property seized,” said Wesley Hottot, a lawyer for Timbs, who spoke with The New York Times earlier this week. “The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, whether I’m guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive.”
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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