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SCOTUS Ruling Limits Police Powers for Seizing Private Property

On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States dealt a major blow to the powers law enforcement agencies can exercise when seizing the private property of individuals accused or convicted of crimes.

The unanimous ruling is the first of its type to place real limitations on for-profit policing, may have implications across state criminal courts nationwide, and could make it more difficult for law enforcement to seize your property should you find yourself on the wrong side of the law hereafter.

The Issue: Excessive Fines, Asset Seizures

SCOTUS’ sweeping ruling stems from Timbs v. Indiana, a case which focused on many of the arguments which have so vehemently attacked the use of civil asset forfeiture laws and other controversial asset seizure policies in recent years. Initially created as a means to empower police and facilitate their ability to deconstruct and cripple criminal enterprises, these laws have arguably become more of a means to generate profit and protect police departments’ bottom lines than to substantively fight crime.

As many advocacy groups have noted, people who have their property seized under forfeiture laws and unscrupulous seizure policies face frustrating, costly, and often fruitless legal battles when attempting to recover what they own. That’s true even when defendants are ultimately found “not guilty,” when any criminal allegations against them are dropped, and in some scenarios where criminal investigations never result in actual charges.

Stories about the misuse of civil asset forfeiture and similar laws have added to the degradation of many Americans’ view of the criminal justice system. Even at a time when “sweeping reform” efforts provide some hope, these types of abuses can be detrimental to our country’s collective faith and conscience in our laws, as well as the officers and agencies who enforce them.

The Case: Timbs v. Indiana

The case underlying the recent SCOTUS ruling was a matter ignited by a man who had pleaded guilty to drug crime and conspiracy charges. That man, Timbs, filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana. In that lawsuit, Timbs argued a court order, issued under civil asset forfeiture laws, required that he relinquish possession of his vehicle – a Land Rover worth roughly $42,000, which was purchased using funds from his father’s life insurance policy.

The core of Timbs’ argument, with which two lower courts agreed but the Indiana state Supreme Court did not, centered on how the vehicle seizure constituted an “excessive fine,” as its value exceeded four times the maximum $10,000 fine imposed for his drug conviction under Indiana state law.

The Question: Does the 8th Amendment Apply?

Timbs v. Indiana was ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court, which was tasked with determining whether states, just as the federal government, are subject to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Although many of us are familiar with the first 10 Constitutional Amendments, known collectively as the “Bill of Rights,” many Americans don’t know that at the time of its ratification in 1791, its reach applied only to the federal government. After the Civil War, the ratification of the 14th Amendment promised the Constitutional rights contained in the Bill of Rights – which include the right to bear arms, protections against self-incrimination, and other essential rights used by criminal defendants – would expand to the states.

Through a process known as “incorporation,” the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over the years since that much of what’s contained in the original 10 Amendments also apply at the state level. Only a few parts of the Bill of Rights have remained unincorporated – including, until February 20, 2019, the provision of the 8th Amendments prohibiting excessive fines.

The Ruling: Limiting Police Powers

In this context, it’s clear why SCOTUS’ recent ruling sets a major precedent. Leading up to the decision, police departments and other law enforcement agencies have been able to capitalize on using existing laws to impose excessive fines, typically by using civil asset forfeiture.

As the Justices noted, those excessive fines “undermine Constitutional liberties,” and the policies used to impose them are vulnerable to misuse for political purposes, financial gain, and reasons which do not reflect with objectives to punish and deter. Such fines, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her opinion, often provide a source of revenue, while other penalties typically “cost the State money.”

For Timbs, the ruling means the lower court may overturn the imposition of his excessive fine, and return to him his Land Rover (or all but $10,000 of his Land Rover). On a more realistic and important level which could very well apply in courts across the nation moving forward, the ruling means it could become harder for police to seize private property.

Ultimately, SCOTUS has broadened legal protections for property rights, and has paved the way for legitimate arguments that in matters where civil asset forfeiture and other similar policies are used punitively (at least in part), the 8th Amendment’s clause against excessive fines would apply.

As that standard should now apply to the states moving forward, it could mean individuals may have the opportunity to better fight state or local police in order to get back their assets or, potentially, to deter and prevent police from engaging in excessive asset forfeiture.

Protecting Your Rights. Fighting For Your Future.

At Friedman & Nemecek, L.L.C. Attorneys at Law, our attorneys know civil asset forfeiture has become an increasingly common “collateral consequence” for criminal defendants. We also know how critically important our clients’ rights, afforded to them by the U.S. Constitution, can be when it comes to criminal law. It is these rights – from the right to remain silent to the right to due process and a jury by one’s peers – which we work to protect for our clients each and every day.

If you have a criminal case to discuss in Cleveland or the state of Ohio, call (888) 694-4645 or contact us online to speak with a criminal defense attorney from our firm. We handle a range of state and federal criminal cases, and have the experience and resources to help.On February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States dealt a major blow to the powers law enforcement agencies can exercise when seizing the private property of individuals accused or convicted of crimes.
The unanimous ruling is the first of its type to place real limitations on for-profit policing, may have implications across state criminal courts nationwide, and could make it more difficult for law enforcement to seize your property should you find yourself on the wrong side of the law hereafter.
The Issue: Excessive Fines, Asset Seizures
SCOTUS’ sweeping ruling stems from Timbs v. Indiana, a case which focused on many of the arguments which have so vehemently attacked the use of civil asset forfeiture laws and other controversial asset seizure policies in recent years. Initially created as a means to empower police and facilitate their ability to deconstruct and cripple criminal enterprises, these laws have arguably become more of a means to generate profit and protect police departments’ bottom lines than to substantively fight crime.
As many advocacy groups have noted, people who have their property seized under forfeiture laws and unscrupulous seizure policies face frustrating, costly, and often fruitless legal battles when attempting to recover what they own. That’s true even when defendants are ultimately found “not guilty,” when any criminal allegations against them are dropped, and in some scenarios where criminal investigations never result in actual charges.
Stories about the misuse of civil asset forfeiture and similar laws have added to the degradation of many Americans’ view of the criminal justice system. Even at a time when “sweeping reform” efforts provide some hope, these types of abuses can be detrimental to our country’s collective faith and conscience in our laws, as well as the officers and agencies who enforce them.
The Case: Timbs v. Indiana
The case underlying the recent SCOTUS ruling was a matter ignited by a man who had pleaded guilty to drug crime and conspiracy charges. That man, Timbs, filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana. In that lawsuit, Timbs argued a court order, issued under civil asset forfeiture laws, required that he relinquish possession of his vehicle – a Land Rover worth roughly $42,000, which was purchased using funds from his father’s life insurance policy.
The core of Timbs’ argument, with which two lower courts agreed but the Indiana state Supreme Court did not, centered on how the vehicle seizure constituted an “excessive fine,” as its value exceeded four times the maximum $10,000 fine imposed for his drug conviction under Indiana state law.
The Question: Does the 8th Amendment Apply?
Timbs v. Indiana was ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court, which was tasked with determining whether states, just as the federal government, are subject to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Although many of us are familiar with the first 10 Constitutional Amendments, known collectively as the “Bill of Rights,” many Americans don’t know that at the time of its ratification in 1791, its reach applied only to the federal government. After the Civil War, the ratification of the 14th Amendment promised the Constitutional rights contained in the Bill of Rights – which include the right to bear arms, protections against self-incrimination, and other essential rights used by criminal defendants – would expand to the states.
Through a process known as “incorporation,” the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over the years since that much of what’s contained in the original 10 Amendments also apply at the state level. Only a few parts of the Bill of Rights have remained unincorporated – including, until February 20, 2019, the provision of the 8th Amendments prohibiting excessive fines.
The Ruling: Limiting Police Powers
In this context, it’s clear why SCOTUS’ recent ruling sets a major precedent. Leading up to the decision, police departments and other law enforcement agencies have been able to capitalize on using existing laws to impose excessive fines, typically by using civil asset forfeiture.
As the Justices noted, those excessive fines “undermine Constitutional liberties,” and the policies used to impose them are vulnerable to misuse for political purposes, financial gain, and reasons which do not reflect with objectives to punish and deter. Such fines, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her opinion, often provide a source of revenue, while other penalties typically “cost the State money.”
For Timbs, the ruling means the lower court may overturn the imposition of his excessive fine, and return to him his Land Rover (or all but $10,000 of his Land Rover). On a more realistic and important level which could very well apply in courts across the nation moving forward, the ruling means it could become harder for police to seize private property.
Ultimately, SCOTUS has broadened legal protections for property rights, and has paved the way for legitimate arguments that in matters where civil asset forfeiture and other similar policies are used punitively (at least in part), the 8th Amendment’s clause against excessive fines would apply.
As that standard should now apply to the states moving forward, it could mean individuals may have the opportunity to better fight state or local police in order to get back their assets or, potentially, to deter and prevent police from engaging in excessive asset forfeiture.
Protecting Your Rights. Fighting For Your Future.
At Friedman & Nemecek, L.L.C. Attorneys at Law, our attorneys know civil asset forfeiture has become an increasingly common “collateral consequence” for criminal defendants. We also know how critically important our clients’ rights, afforded to them by the U.S. Constitution, can be when it comes to criminal law. It is these rights – from the right to remain silent to the right to due process and a jury by one’s peers – which we work to protect for our clients each and every day.
If you have a criminal case to discuss in Cleveland or the state of Ohio, call (888) 694-4645 or contact us online to speak with a criminal defense attorney from our firm. We handle a range of state and federal criminal cases, and have the experience and resources to help.

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