By Lisa Soronen
Timbs v. Indiana has received a lot of attention because it deals with a controversial subject—civil asset forfeitures. But as a practical matter, this case is unlikely to have much of an impact.
What this case now requires under the federal Constitution has long since been required under state constitutions.
In Timbs, the Supreme Court held unanimously that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause applies to states and local governments. This ruling is unsurprising given that the Supreme Court has “incorporated” almost all of the Bill of Rights against states and local governments since the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868.
The Supreme Court’s opinion explains why this case doesn’t change much. All 50 state constitutions have excessive fines clauses that apply to states and local governments—some have been there for centuries. It is possible that some of these state constitutional provisions have been interpreted differently than the federal provision. But there is so little federal case law on what constitutes an excessive fine that it is unlikely most interpretations of state constitutions contradict the scant federal case law.
If the Supreme Court had ruled that the fine in this case was (or even wasn’t) excessive, it would have been a much bigger deal. Remarkably, in only one case has the Supreme Court ever considered whether a fine was excessive.
In United States v. Bajakajian, Hosep Bajakajian failed to comply with federal law requiring him to report that he was leaving the United States with more than $10,000. The federal government sought to forfeit the entire amount: $357,144.
The Supreme Court concluded the amount of the forfeiture was unconstitutionally excessive because it wasn’t proportional to the gravity of the offense. Bajakajian didn’t “fit into the class of persons for whom the statute was principally designed: He is not a money launderer, a drug trafficker, or a tax evader.” The maximum monetary penalty for his crime was $5,000. And as Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out: “[h]ad his crime gone undetected, the Government would have been deprived only of the information that $357,144 had left the country.”
United States v. Bajakajian involves an extreme case—an enormous forfeiture for a relatively minor offense. It provides little guidance on when a fine is excessive. In contrast, the forfeiture in Timbs is smaller (a vehicle valued under $40,000) and the offense is more serious (drug dealing). And while the maximum monetary penalty for the single drug-dealing charge to which Timbs pled guilty is $10,000, that same maximum $10,000 fine also applies to murder in Indiana. In addition, Timbs confessed to using his vehicle to purchase heroin on many occasions. Given this mix of factors, the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision on remand will give Hoosiers more guidance on how to apply the federal Excessive Fines Clause in future cases.
Another vexing question not at issue in Timbs v. Indiana is when, if ever, government assessments other than those imposed at criminal sentencing and civil asset forfeitures may constitute “fines” subject to the Excessive Fines Clause. In only three cases has the Supreme Court determined whether a particular government assessment is a “fine.”
The Supreme Court has previously held that criminal and civil forfeitures are “fines” because they constitute punishment. So, in Timbs, the court didn’t provide any guidance on what is a “fine.” Had it done so this case would have been a bigger deal.
The Supreme Court will have another chance to tackle the question of what is a “fine” if it agrees to decide Lovelace v. Illinois. Lovelace was acquitted of all charges (including murder) but the court retained 10% of his bond, above the direct costs of administering the bond, totaling $35,000. Lovelace argues the bond retention is a “fine” and that it is excessive in light of his exoneration. The lower court held that it is a “fee” and not a “fine.” So, the Excessive Fines Clause didn’t apply.
Undoubtedly, Timbs v. Indiana provides states and local governments a reminder to look at their assessments and determine whether they are “fines” and, if so, whether they are “excessive.” But what Timbs v. Indiana doesn’t do is offer any guidance on how to make either determination.
The real impact of Timbs v. Indiana may be that by agreeing to decide an excessive fines forfeiture case the high court is signaling it is interested in all three related topics. Stay tuned to see whether the Supreme Court grants the Lovelace petition.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.