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The U.S. Constitution Limits Police Seizures

The United States Supreme court has ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines applies to the states.  Originally the Bill of Rights applied only to actions of the federal, not state, government.  The eighth is one of the few amendments that was not “incorporated” – meaning it had not been applied against the states.  After Timbs v. Indiana, that limitation is no more.  As a result, when a state or local community seizes property for its connection to a crime, that seizure is not unlimited.  The seizure cannot be excessive.

Police had Seized Land Rover

The seizure in Timbs v. Indiana looked like it was excessive.  Timbs had been arrested for selling a couple hundred dollars of drugs. For the offense he received house arrest, five years’ probation, and had to pay $1,200 in fines and court costs.  Separate and apart from his sentence, his Land Rover was seized and set for forfeiture as an instrumentality of the crime.

Seizure was Excessive

The seizure and forfeiture of the Land Rover was challenged in an Indiana trial court.  The trial judge sided with Mr. Timbs and found the seizure to be excessive when compared with the crime.  Though he’d been tagged with $1,200 in fines, and the maximum fine he could have faced was $10,000, the value of the Land Rover that had been seized was over $40,000.  Indiana appealed and the case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court didn’t say whether or not the seizure was constitutionally excessive, only that the U.S. Constitution does limit how much a state or local government can seize even if the thing seized is the instrumentality of a crime.

Local Governments Use Seizure for Fundraising

Seizure of property had gotten to the point where a forty-something-thousand dollar Land Rover could be taken by the government for a relatively minor drug crime because local governments have been using property seizures as a source of revenue.  Property seizures are often used to fund portions of local court or law enforcement operations.

Where to Learn More

  1. Check out AL.com’s series of articles discussing potential reform to Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws;
  2. Learn about your rights with respect to civil asset forfeiture in Alabama from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s special report on the subject;
  3. Check out coverage of the case on SCOTUSblog;
  4. Read the Supreme Court’s opinion here; and
  5. Contact the lawyers of Browne House about defense of your criminal case, property forfeiture, or appeal.