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.
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.