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.
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.