Prohibition against Excessive Fines by U.S. States

In a unanimous decision by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Timbs v. Indiana[1]that the Eighth Amendment’s[2] protection against excessive fines applies to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause. The decision may strike a blow at the heart of many states’ civil asset forfeiture laws, which enable law enforcement officials to confiscate property believed to have been used in connection with a crime, but which have been criticized for depriving owners of property without due process protections and for giving the police a financial incentive in the administration of justice[3]. Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in an Indiana trial court to distributing a small amount of heroin and was sentenced to home detention, probation, and payment of fines and costs. The police seized his Land Rover automobile, valued at $42,000, under Indiana’s asset forfeiture law, alleging that the vehicle had been used to transport the heroin. Timbs demonstrated that the Rover had been purchased not by any illegal activity, but with the proceeds of an insurance policy on his late father’s life. The vehicle had indeed been used to transport heroin, but Timbs argued at trial and the court agreed that forfeiture of the Land Rover would constitute an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment, because the maximum fine for the distribution offense was $10,000. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the prohibition on excessive fines had not been incorporated against the states and therefore restrained only the federal government from disproportionate impositions[4]. Tracing its history...