U.S. Supreme Court Reins In Civil Asset Forfeiture, Unanimously Ruling That Excessive Fines Clause Applies to States

Press Release February 20, 2019
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Tamar Todd 510-593-4908
Jag Davies 212-613-8035

In a victory for proponents of civil asset forfeiture reform, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eight Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to states, thereby prohibiting state and local governments from collecting excessive fines, fees and forfeitures.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. “The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority,” Ginsburg wrote. 
Theshia Naidoo, Legal Director, Criminal Justice at the Drug Policy Alliance, issued the following statement:
“Civil asset forfeiture encourages law enforcement to engage in unethical practices under the banner of the war on drugs. This ruling provides an important check on law enforcement abuses and paves the way for asset forfeiture reform across the country.”
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and a diverse group of national and state groups filed an amicus brief in this case which wrestled with issues at the heart of civil asset forfeiture abuse. Mr. Timbs was arrested during an undercover drug enforcement operation, pled guilty, paid approximately $1,200 in fees, and was sentenced to home detention and probation.  Months after his arrest, the state initiated a civil proceeding to forfeit a personal vehicle that he had purchased with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy.  The trial court in Indiana concluded that the forfeiture was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.  The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, stating that the Excessive Fines Clause does not apply to the state, and it reinstated the forfeiture. Mr. Timbs then filed a petition for review, and the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The amicus brief filed by DPA brought together groups across the political spectrum in the call to restrain governmental overreach and abuse of the civil forfeiture program.  Signatories to the brief included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, Americans for Prosperity, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, FreedomWorks, Independence Institute (Colorado), Libertas (Utah), Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i, Rio Grande Foundation (New Mexico) and Alabama Appleseed.  This broad-based and ideologically diverse group united to argue that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment was designed to safeguard against the very abuses of power which are so prevalent in civil asset forfeiture.
Though federal asset forfeiture may have originally been intended to cripple drug trafficking organizations and high-level operatives, in practice, this has not panned out. Rather, ordinary people, often with little or no connection to criminal activity, are frequently the targets of asset seizures.  Most seizures involve small dollar amounts, not huge sums of cash seized from kingpins, and largely occur during routine traffic stops.  Most seizures go uncontested – not because there is no valid claim – but because the cost of retaining a lawyer and challenging the seizure may be prohibitive or may far surpass the value of the seized property.  Worse, the deck is stacked against property owners who challenge forfeiture proceedings:  the government must meet a relatively low evidentiary standard to forfeit property, and typically, it is the owner who has the burden of proving the property’s innocence.
The Drug Policy Alliance has long played a key role in forfeiture reform, calling for abolishing civil forfeiture entirely and supporting efforts to substantially reform the practice. This includes passing a groundbreaking bill in New Mexico that enacted some of the strongest protections against wrongful seizures in the country in 2015. In California, DPA also played a leading role in passing sweeping civil forfeiture reform in 2016 that removed the financial incentives for law enforcement to seize property and pursue forfeitures with federal agencies in cases where no one is arrested, charged or convicted of a crime. 

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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