Mr. Timbs used life insurance proceeds to purchase a Land Rover for $41,558.30. He used the vehicle to transport heroin worth a total of $385. He was arrested and his vehicle was seized. After pleading guilty to one count of dealing in a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to commit theft, petitioner was sentenced to six years – one year in home detention and 5 years of probation. He was required to pay $385 in police costs, an interdiction fee of $200, court costs of $168, a bond fee of $50, and $400 for drug and alcohol assessments with the probation department. The State then filed a complaint to forfeit petitioner’s vehicle. Petitioner argued that the forfeiture was excessive in violation of the Eight Amendment’s excessive fines clause. The trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals Court held that the forfeiture was excessive, in part because the maximum statutory fine for dealing with controlled substances was $10,000. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the excessive fines clause has not been incorporated by the U.S. Supreme Court against the states and reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert.
The Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment excessive fines clause is incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment and applies to states. In an opinion joined by 8 of the Justices, Justice Ginsburg discussed the history of the Excessive Fines clause, noting that the Magna Carta required economic sanctions “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive an offender of his livelihood.” She also noted that the English Bill of Rights reaffirmed the Magna Carta and was adopted verbatim in the Eighth Amendment. Justice Ginsburg ended her historical discussion by suggesting that there is currently a particular risk of excessiveness when government imposes fines, fees and forfeitures to raise revenue. Finally, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Thomas focused on the Black Codes and the use of excessive fines by southern states following the Civil War that effectively re-enslaved many Black people. In separate concurring opinions, Justice Gorsuch and Justice Thomas agreed that the excessive fines clause is incorporated by the 14th Amendment, but posited that it should be incorporated through the “privileges or immunities” clause and not the due process clause.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment of Indiana Supreme Court and remanded the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court for further proceedings consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion.
On remand, the Indiana Supreme Court held, inter alia, that “the forfeiture of the vehicle was at least partly punitive, making it a fine subject to the Excessive Fines Clause,” and “the Excessive Fines Clause includes both an instrumentality limitation and a proportionality [limitation] for use-based in rem fines.” The Court further held that use-based fines must meet two requirements to comport with the Excessive Fines Clause: “(1) the property must be the actual means by which an underlying offense was committed; and (2) the harshness of the forfeiture penalty must not be grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense and the claimant’s culpability for the property’s misuse.” Importantly, in determining the harshness of the penalty, the Court explained:
To conduct a proportionality analysis at all, we need to consider the punishment’s magnitude. And the owner’s economic means—relative to the property’s value—is an appropriate consideration for determining that magnitude. To hold the opposite would generate a new fiction: that taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally.
The Court elucidated that the historical roots of the Excessive Fines Clause counsel that fines “‘should be proportioned to the offense and that they should not deprive a wrongdoer of his livelihood,’” (quoting United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 335 (1998)) and that “‘no man shall be amerced even to the fullest extent of his means,’” (quoting Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S.Ct. 682 (2019) (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment)). The Court therefore concluded that “the forfeiture’s effect on the owner is an appropriate consideration in determining the harshness of the forfeiture’s punishment.”
The Court found that the vehicle was the actual means by which the predicate crime was committed, thereby rendering the vehicle an instrumentality. After analyzing the text and history of the Excessive Fines Clause, the history of in rem forfeitures, and Supreme Court precedent, the Court concluded that the Excessive Fines Clause places a proportionality limit on use-based fines. The Court set forth its test for the proportionality limitation for use-based in rem fines: “based on the totality of the circumstances, if the punitive value of the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying offenses and the owner’s culpability for the property’s criminal use, the fine is unconstitutionally excessive.” To apply this gross disproportionality test, the Court provided three non-exclusive factors courts may take into account: (1) the harshness of the punishment; (2) the severity of the offense; and (3) the claimant’s culpability.
With respect to the first factor—the harshness of the punishment—the Court explained that “the more remedial a forfeiture is, the less punishment it imposes.” Thus, to determine the harshness of a punishment, a court’s assessment may include: “the extent to which the forfeiture would remedy the harm caused; the property’s role in the underlying offenses; the property’s use in other activities, criminal or lawful; the property’s market value; other sanctions imposed on the claimant; and effects the forfeiture will have on the claimant,” which requires consideration of the owner’s economic means.
Regarding the second factor—the severity of the offense—the Court laid out several considerations a court’s assessment may include: “the seriousness of the statutory offense, considering statutory penalties; the seriousness of the specific crime committed compared to the other variants of the offense, considering any sentences imposed; the harm caused by the crime committed; and the relationship of the offense to other criminal activity.” The Court explained that the second factor must be considered alongside the third factor—the claimant’s culpability, which “focuses on the claimant’s blameworthiness for the property’s use as an instrumentality of the underlying offenses.”
Because the proportionality analysis the Court outlined is factually intensive and turns on the totality of the circumstances, the Court remanded to the trial court to apply the proportionality test to facts of the case.
On remand, the trial court applied evidence from July 15, 2015 and February 21, 2020 evidentiary hearings to evaluate “gross proportionality,” the standard adopted by the Indiana Supreme Court. Applying the three factors outlined by the Indiana Supreme Court, the trial Court determined:
(1) The punishment was unduly harsh and excessively punitive. The court found that the Land Rover did play a role in the underlying offense because it was used to transport the heroin and was used for other criminal activities. That fact weighed in favor of the conclusion that the forfeiture of the Land Rover was “more remedial than punitive.” However, the court added that: that the forfeiture of the Land Rover did nothing to remedy the harm caused; the Land Rover’s $35,000 value well exceeded the $10,000 maximum fine for a felony;the Land Rover was Timbs’s only asset; Timbs’s other sanctions, including a six-year restriction on his liberty and $1,203 in fees and costs are significantly burdensome; and the forfeiture of the Land Rover had a particularly negative effect of Timbs because it deprived him of his only asset — a necessary asset without which it is harder for him to maintain employment and serves as an impediment to his recovery from addiction. The court concluded that these considerations increased the likelihood of recidivism and obstructed the goal of reformation over vindictive justice. Thus, on balance, the court found that the seizure of the Land Rover was excessively punitive and unduly harsh.
(2) The underlying offense was not severe. The court noted that Timbs’s transgression was “minor compared to other variants of the same offense.” The court continued that Timbs “does not fit into the class of persons for whom the statute was principally designed: individuals who regularly sell narcotics to earn a living,” because Timbs sold heroin only to feed his own addiction. The court added that Timbs’s offense caused no harm because the heroin was sold only to a law enforcement officer rather than a fellow drug abuser and the other criminal activities to which the offense was related were also victimless crimes because the possession of heroin was for Timbs’ own use. Upon consideration of these factors, the court concluded that the crime Timbs committed was of minimal severity.
(3) Timbs was culpable for the property’s use as an instrumentality of the underlying offense. Recognizing that Timbs has always acknowledged that he used the Land Rover to commit the crime of dealing in a controlled substance, the court determined that his culpability was at the “high end” of the culpability spectrum.
Taking into account the totality of the circumstances, the court found, by a significant margin, that Timbs had overcome his burden to establish that “the harshness of the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the Land Rover’s corresponding criminal use.” The court therefore ordered that the Land Rover at issue be released to Timbs immediately.
The State, again, appealed, contending, inter alia, that the Indiana Supreme Court should overturn its prior decision and hold that the Excessive Fines Clause imposes no proportionality requirement on in rem forfeitures. Alternatively, the State suggested that the Court adopt the standard of gross disproportionality articulated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause precedents. The case is fully briefed and remains pending before the Indiana Supreme Court.
You can find relevant case documents via SCOTUSblog, including a long list of amici curae. In particular, FFJC filed a brief in support of the petitioner alongside the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and R Street Institute, and our amicus brief was directly quoted by Justice Ginsburg in her opinion. The American Bar Association filed another, and the Juvenile Law Center filed another alongside 40 other organizations.
Related: FFJC’s Lisa Foster appeared on Democracy Now! to explain the implications of the decision. You can find a video of her comments below.