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SCOTUS Strikes Down Land Rover Forfeiture

By George Khoury, Esq. on February 20, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Five years after John Oliver's expose on civil asset forfeiture, SCOTUS is chiming in to explain that a state's civil in rem forfeiture is subject to the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines.

In the recently issued opinion in Timbs v. Indiana, the appellant sought to overturn the state's taking of his Land Rover under civil asset forfeiture. Tyson Timbs had pleaded guilty to selling drugs, and the state seized his vehicle. However, as the High Court explained, the Land Rover forfeiture was a disproportionate penalty because the most he could be fined under the statute he pleaded to was $10,000, and the car was purchased for $42,000.

A Rover for Dad

Curiously, as the Court explains, Timbs's Land Rover was not purchased with drug money, but rather the proceeds of his father's life insurance.

Initially, the state trial court ruled in Timbs's favor that the forfeiture was excessive. Then, the state court of appeals affirmed that decision. Unfortunately for Timbs, on appeal to the Indiana state supreme court, those decisions were reversed. As the U.S. Supreme Court explained though, the state supreme court incorrectly held that Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive fines did not apply to the states. The unanimous opinion explains, rather clearly, that:

"The Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause."

Agreement on the Court?

Interestingly, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch each filed concurrences where each explain that the majority is looking at the wrong part of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though the Justices all reach the same conclusion, they explained that the proper analysis would be under the privileges and immunities clause, rather than due process.

Oddly though Justice Thomas used his concurrence to show the world he has an axe to grind against substantive due process:

"Because the oxymoronic "substantive" "due process" doctrine has no basis in the Constitution, it is unsurprising that the Court has been unable to adhere to any "guiding principle to distinguish 'fundamental' rights that warrant protection from nonfundamental rights that do not." McDonald, supra, at 811 (opinion of THOMAS, J.). And because the Court's substantive due process precedents allow the Court to fashion fundamental rights without any textual constraints, it is equally unsurprising that among these precedents are some of the Court's most notoriously incorrect decisions. E.g., Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113 (1973); Dred Scott v. Sandford, 19 How. 393, 450 (1857)."

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