Timbs v. Indiana (2019)

U.S. Supreme Court

Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S.Ct. 682 (2019)


Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The trial court sentenced him to one year of home detention and five years of probation, which included a court-supervised addiction-treatment program. The sentence also required Timbs to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized his vehicle, a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for about $42,000. Timbs paid for the vehicle with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died.

The State engaged a private law firm to bring a civil suit for forfeiture of Timbs’s Land Rover, charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin. After Timbs’s guilty plea in the criminal case, the trial court held a hearing on the forfeiture demand. Although finding that Timbs’s vehicle had been used to facilitate violation of a criminal statute, the court denied the requested forfeiture, observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, hence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed that determination, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. 84 N. E. 3d 1179 (2017). The Indiana Supreme Court did not decide whether the forfeit-ure would be excessive. Instead, it held that the Exces- sive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions. We granted certiorari. 585 U. S. __ (2018).

The question presented: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishment” and “[e]xcessive bail,” the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal-law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with “dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 767 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis deleted). The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Today, acknowledgment of the right’s fundamental nature remains widespread. As Indiana itself reports, all 50 States have a constitutional provision prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality. Brief in Opposition 8–9. Indeed, Indiana explains that its own Supreme Court has held that the Indiana Constitution should be interpreted to impose the same restrictions as the Eighth Amendment. Id., at 9 (citing Norris v. State, 271 Ind. 568, 576, 394 N.E.2d 144, 150 (1979)).

For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, as the Stuarts’ critics learned several centuries ago. See Browning-Ferris, 492 U. S., at 267. Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed “in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,” for “fines are a source of revenue,” while other forms of punishment “cost a State money.” Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 979, n. 9 (1991) (opinion of Scalia, J.) (“it makes sense to scrutinize governmental action more closely when the State stands to benefit”). This concern is scarcely hypothetical. See Brief for American Civil Liberties Union et al. as Amici Curiae 7 (“Perhaps because they are politically easier to impose than generally applicable taxes, state and local governments nationwide increasingly depend heavily on fines and fees as a source of general revenue.”).

In short, the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming. Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” McDonald, 561 U. S., at 767 (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis deleted).



The Land Rover owned by Mr. Timbs was seized in 2013 when he entered a guilty to a drug offense.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 decision incorporated the Excessive Fines Clause of the 8th Amendment and informed Indiana—and other states—that this clause applies to state criminal cases.  The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Indiana for its state courts to decide whether the seizure of the vehicle violated the 8th Amendment as an Excessive Fine.  The state trial court ruled that the seizure of the $35,000 vehicle was indeed an improper excessive fine for a crime for which the punishment was one-year of home confinement and $1,200 in court fees.  Indiana appealed that decision through state appellate courts.  In June 2021, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the vehicle must be returned to Mr. Timbs.  Mr. Timbs was represented by a public interest law firm that handles cases involving property rights, economic liberty for businesses, and parental choices about schools.  Without the help of an organized public interest entity, the litigation process might very well have been much too expensive for him to see his case through to the end if he had to pay for his own attorney. 


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