On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court formally incorporated the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause against the states in a 9–0 decision in Timbs v. Indiana. The Supreme Court’s holding is a first step toward transforming the Eighth Amendment into a tool to combat the proliferation of court fees and fines around the country that disproportionately impact the poor and people of color.
The case involved the use of civil asset forfeiture by states and localities. The petitioner, Tyson Timbs, bought and transported a small amount of heroin using his car, a recently-purchased Land Rover. When Timbs pled guilty in 2015, the state of Indiana sought to take possession of his Land Rover that had been purchased for $42,000. The trial court refused, saying that the forfeiture would be an unconstitutionally excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment; but the Supreme Court of Indiana disagreed, saying that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines applies only to the federal government, not the states.
The Brennan Center, the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks Foundation, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and others, represented by Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, filed an amicus brief on September 11, 2018 arguing that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause should be applied to the states. The brief discussed the modern experience with civil asset forfeiture and how it disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, and detailed how such fines are exactly what the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause was meant to protect against.
A primary goal of the Brennan Center’s work to end mass incarceration is to stop the punishment of poverty. The Brennan Center advocates for reshaping public policies around criminal justice fines and fees and remains at the forefront of identifying and drawing attention to the negative consequences and questionable constitutionality of such fines and fees.