A big ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today could signal changes for the justice system.
In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court ruled that State may not impose excessive fines in criminal cases. This means if the government imposes fines or fees for a convictions, those fines or fees must be proportionate to the offense.
In this case, the the State of Indiana had seized a defendant’s $40,000 car upon conviction for a crime where he was ultimately fined only $1,203. The Supreme Court specifically ruled that the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to state law.
What Does This Mean Moving Forward?
This ruling might disrupt the way courts do business. Court and police agencies rely on fines for defendants as well as civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is where the police get to keep the property they find when a person is arrested. The theory behind this law is that the property was gained from illegal activity.
A proposed law in Michigan would limit police ability to engage in civil asset forfeiture for amounts of property under $50,000 until the defendant is convicted of a crime. The police would have to return the property where a person is not charged with a crime or not convicted after being charged. There are many instances in Michigan currently each year where police keep property they have seized and the person isn’t even charged with a crime or isn’t convicted of the crime. Read our article on Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform in Michigan.
Moving forward, this case really cautions courts to limit the fines imposed in cases or to limit asset forfeiture. Defendants can now use this case as support to contest excessive fines imposed by courts.
What Happened in the Case
Mr. Tyson Timbs plead guilty to selling heroin and conspiracy to commit theft. He was sentenced to one year house arrest and five years of probation. The Court fined him $1,203. The police had also seized Timbs’s SUV worth $42,000, which he paid for with proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy payout. The State attempted to seize the SUV, claiming it was used in the commission of a crime. The Trial Court declined to agree with the forfeiture, because the value of the SUV was much greater than the potential fine set by law, which was $10,000. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Trial Court. However, the Indiana Supreme Court overruled these decisions on the grounds that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause did not extend to state law. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Indiana State Court, ruling that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause applies to state law.
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Sam Bernstein is a Washtenaw County Criminal Lawyer.
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