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Analysis

A State Supreme Court Ruling to Make Fines More Fair

Excessive fines often hit those with the least ability to pay, exacerbating the problems with the criminal justice system. Courts are finally recognizing that.

October 30, 2019
indiana supreme court
JTSorrell/Getty

Like millions of Americans, Tyson Timbs became addicted to opiates after he was prescribed hydrocodone for pain. When that became unavailable, he began using heroin, and in 2015, he pleaded guilty to transporting a small amount of heroin in his SUV.

The maximum possible fine was $10,000, but the state seized Timbs’s vehicle, which he had just bought for $42,000. It was a prime example of how civil asset forfeiture often hurts people who need help the most.

This week, following a February victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, Timbs scored a win at the Indiana Supreme Court that continues to chip away at this frequently unjust system.

“If they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” Timbs said. “Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society.”

Timbs challenged the state’s seizure of his SUV, arguing that it violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines. The state argued that this protection only applied to the federal government, not the states. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in February unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fine prohibition does apply to state governments.

At the Supreme Court, the Brennan Center and other groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief on how civil asset forfeiture disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. We argued that these fines are precisely the harm the Eighth Amendment was intended to guard against.

In their decision, the justices sent the case back to the state courts to determine whether the penalty was, in fact, an excessive fine. This week, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the seizure of Timbs’s vehicle indeed was a fine, because it was at least partly punitive. Unlike normal criminal fines which have a pre-set dollar amount, the value of property seized by the government is neither fixed nor tied to the harm of the underlying offense. Having determined that the seizure constituted a fine, the court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the fine is excessive under the Eighth Amendment.

In recent years, many states and localities have increased fees and fines, added new ones, and become more aggressive in seeking asset forfeiture. The Brennan Center and others have documented the ways in which fines, fees, and asset forfeiture often serve in practice to criminalize poverty. They act as barriers to reentry into society, lead to unnecessary and costly incarceration, and extract wealth from our most vulnerable communities. They also distort the priorities of our courts and law enforcement agencies away from public safety and toward raising revenue.

This all undercuts trust in the justice system. And in some places, the system of imposing and collecting this money may cost nearly as much to administer as it collects.

While much reform is needed to ensure that we are not paying for our governments on the backs of those least able to pay, prohibiting state and local governments from imposing excessive fines is a step in the right direction.

After four years and multiple court victories, Timbs still does not have his SUV back. It will now fall to the state trial court to determine whether the forfeiture of a $42,000 vehicle is an unconstitutional penalty for transporting a small amount of drugs.