The Supreme Court has agreed to look at whether the 8th Amendment clause forbidding “excessive fines” applies against the states.
The case in question involves the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture. Tyson Timbs was convicted and served time and paid fines for selling a small amount of drugs to an undercover officer. The state also launched a civil asset forfeiture case against his car:
…But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportionate” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Tyson suffered from drug addiction, the court noted, but his only record of dealing was selling a small amount of drugs to undercover police. The court also noted the “financial burdens” that Tyson had already faced when he pleaded guilty. Taking his car on top of all that would violate the Eighth Amendment.
Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states.
…“This case is about more than just a truck,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The Excessive Fines Clause is a critical check on the government’s power to punish people and take their property. Without it, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or—using civil forfeiture—no crime at all.”
The case has potentially very wide application, far beyond civil asset forfeiture, because municipal governments desperate for revenue are criminalizing and fining minor infractions (see also my posts on Ferguson, MO and here)
Hilda Brucker went down to the municipal court in October 2016 after receiving a phone call. She hadn’t received a formal summons or known of any wrongdoing; instead, she thought she needed to clear a ticket.
But when she arrived at the Doraville, Georgia, courthouse, Brucker said she was placed before a judge and prosecutor who accused her of violating city code — because of cracks in her driveway.
She was fined $100 and sentenced to six months criminal probation, even though this was the first time she was made aware her driveway was considered a problem.
…About 25 percent of Doraville’s operating budget is reliant on fees and fines, according to IJ, a nonprofit law firm. From August 2016 to August 2017, it raked in about $3.8 million in fines, according to IJ’s lawsuit.
“It’s unconstitutional because it creates a financial incentive for the city government … to ticket people,” Josh House, an IJ attorney on the case, told Fox News. He said people in the town were being “punished” for the condition of their property by having to “fund the Doraville city government.”
The Institute for Justice is doing great work.