Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court established an important precedent by ruling in Tyson Timbs’s favor, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled last week that after an eight-year legal odyssey, the man is entitled to get back his vehicle after it was seized when he used it to sell illegal drugs.
The case is of legal significance because the nation’s highest court used it to apply the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines to all U.S. states.
In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Indiana Supreme Court’s finding that the state was entitled to keep a white 2012 Land Rover LR2 Timbs purchased for $42,000, which was confiscated from him when he was arrested in 2013, as The Epoch Times previously reported. Timbs used the vehicle when selling a total of $385 worth of heroin to undercover police.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest and five years of probation, receiving no prison time.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.
The legal theory behind civil asset forfeiture is that because the vehicle was used to commit a crime, it becomes an instrument of the crime and can be seized.
Civil libertarians have long complained that asset forfeitures arising from criminal convictions and cases in which a person is merely suspected of a crime can be arbitrary and excessive. According to the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs before the U.S. Supreme Court, the practice is sometimes referred to by the pejorative “policing for profit.”
The 4-1 ruling on June 10 by the Indiana Supreme Court highlights the long, grinding process individuals face in civil asset forfeiture appeals.
After the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court, the latter then sent the case back to the trial court, instructing it to decide anew whether taking the vehicle was unconstitutionally excessive. The trial court then ruled for Timbs and the state appealed, bringing the case a third time before the Indiana Supreme Court
In her new ruling, Chief Justice Loretta Rush of the state Supreme Court compared Indiana’s long-running quest to retain the white vehicle to “Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick” in Herman Melville’s classic novel.
“The proportionality inquiry remained unresolved—that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse?” Rush wrote of the case’s journey as it bounced from court to court.
Indiana had urged the court to “wholly abandon the proportionality framework” from an earlier ruling in the case, Rush wrote.
The state had argued that the vehicle seizure was within bounds because it was used to commit a crime and that its value wasn’t “extraordinarily high,” when compared with the $30,000 Timbs had spent feeding his former heroin addiction.
“Today, we reject the State’s request to overturn precedent, as there is no compelling reason to deviate from stare decisis and the law of the case; and we conclude that Timbs met his burden to show gross disproportionality, rendering the Land Rover’s forfeiture unconstitutional,” Rush stated in the majority opinion.
The lone dissenter, Justice Mark Massa, wrote in his opinion that “the forfeiture here was indeed harsh, perhaps even mildly disproportionate, given all the facts in mitigation,” but not “grossly so.”
“I am skeptical that dealing in heroin can ever be a crime of minimal severity,” Massa wrote. “No narcotic has left a larger scar on our state and region in recent years, whether overly prescribed or purchased illicitly on the street.”
Institute for Justice attorney Sam Gedge hailed the ruling.
“As the Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized, Indiana’s campaign to take Tyson’s car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail,” Gedge said in a statement.
“The State of Indiana has spent nearly a decade trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict. No one should have to spend eight years fighting the government just to get back their car.”
Timbs has said his heroin addiction began after he was prescribed hydrocodone for foot pain.
The office of Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, a Republican, didn’t immediately respond to a request from The Epoch Times for comment.