The Supreme Court Ruling On Asset Forfeiture

Posted on Jun 19, 2019 by Todd Ver Weire

If you’ve been following along at home on big changes in the judicial landscape, you’re probably aware of the February 20th ruling concerning asset forfeiture cases brought by governmental entities. Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court case which started the debate, discussed the excessive fines clause of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, and how it may or may not apply to state and local governments, not just the federal government.

If that all sounds like a lot of complicated legal jargon, don’t worry. Here’s the breakdown on what happened concerning this issue and why it matters:

What Is Asset Forfeiture?

Asset forfeiture occurs when the government (state, county, city, or federal) seizes assets that may have been involved in criminal activity, used as the instrument in a crime, or been acquired with the proceeds from a crime. For example – if you were driving your car and marijuana is found in it, the government can seize the car in a civil matter under asset forfeiture laws because it was involved in “criminal activity”.  Or, if you happen to have a rock of crack cocaine on you, and a couple of hundred bucks in your wallet, the state would seize the cash under the asset forfeiture laws.  Historically, asset forfeiture has been used to break up criminal activity in certain areas, especially if law enforcement suspects that the assets may have been used to benefit the criminal organization.

Timbs vs. Indiana – How the Supreme Court Feels About Asset Forfeiture

A quick background of the facts surrounding Mr. Timbs and his case:  In 2013 Mr. Timbs was arrested for selling $225 worth of illegal drugs to a pair of law enforcement officers. After pleading guilty to the charges, Timbs was sentenced to a year of house arrest, five years of probation, and $1,200 in fines. In addition, the state confiscated Timbs’ Land Rover, using forfeiture law to assert that the vehicle was instrumental in his criminal activity. Mr. Timbs bought the Land Rover, valued at over $40,000 with an inheritance he received shortly before his arrest.

Timbs sued seeking return of the vehicle on 8th Amendment grounds because the Land Rover was worth approximately four times the maximum possible fine for the crime he had been charged with.  As such, Mr. Timbs argued that the taking of the vehicle constituted an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment. While Grant County ruled in Timbs’ favor, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment only applied to the Federal Government. Not willing to settle on the convoluted logic used by Indiana, Mr. Timbs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh-in on the matter.

In the Supreme Court case Timbs vs. Indiana, the Supreme Court ruled that because of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment’s protection from excessive fines did apply to state and local government. As such, the ruling of the Indiana Supreme Court was vacated, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them to reconsider in light of this opinion.  In layman’s terms, Mr. Timbs won and will soon get his car back.

What Does This Mean For Us?

This Supreme Court ruling establishes that it is unconstitutional for state and local governments to impose excessive fines through the use of asset forfeiture laws. What was once a fertile ground for supplementing law enforcement budgets, is now being restricted through Constitutional protections.  Instead of trying to seize cars for small quantities of drugs, even small quantities of methamphetamine or cocaine, the government is now going to have to demonstrate how the asset they seek to take is not an excessive fine when viewed in light of the crime that someone is charged with.

In Texas the asset forfeiture laws have very strict procedural timelines, and your court appointed defense attorney may not know that the state is trying to take your stuff as well because the asset forfeiture case is civil in nature, and may not be linked in the clerk’s office to your criminal case.  As such, it is very important for you to pay attention to all of the documents you receive when in jail, including anything that says “Citation” at the top, or “Petition” at the top.  These two documents can be indicators that the state is trying to take your stuff under the asset forfeiture laws and further hinder your ability to defend yourself.  Also, a savvy defense attorney can use the discovery tools afforded under the Texas Code of Civil Procedure to find things out relating to the asset forfeiture case, including taking depositions of the law enforcement officers involved in your arrest, that are much more difficult to do in a pure criminal proceeding.

After this ruling, there’s a high chance that civil forfeiture cases will decline and be limited to cases that involve significant amounts of money and serious felonies.  While the U.S. Supreme Court did not clearly define what amounts to an “excessive fine”, the language in Timbs does provide significant guidance by relating the value of the forfeited asset to the value of the fine one faces for the crime.