In the swirling fog that is the 24/7 news cycle, sometimes really important things can be lost. On Wednesday, February 20, 2019, the Supreme Court issued their opinion in Timbs v. Indiana. In this case, the Supreme Court considered whether state governments must comply with the Eighth Amendment: ‘Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.’ For the record, this particular liberty dates all the way back to the Magna Carta.
Historically, the 14th Amendment was ratified to ensure that the individual liberties found in the Bill of Rights would also be protected against infringement by state governments. In prior cases, SCOTUS held that most of the protections in the Bill of Rights do apply to the states, but it had not specifically ruled on the Excessive Fines Clause. Noting this exception, the Indiana Supreme Court announced that it would “decline” to impose “a federal test” on Indiana in the absence of a direct command by the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the heart of this controversy is something called civil asset forfeiture, a process that has often been referred to as legalized theft. If an individual is simply accused of a crime, and not necessarily charged or convicted, their assets may be seized through a civil proceeding. It appears it is not necessary to prove these assets have a direct connection to the crime in question: dubious allegations seem to suffice. And there is this: civil proceedings do not afford the accused the due process safeguards found in criminal law. For too many years, this process has been used by various governmental and law enforcement agencies to guarantee for themselves a profitable revenue stream.
But, on February 20, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court for the first time prohibited all 50 states from imposing excessive fines, holding that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive fines” applies to the states under the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Seldom do all nine justices agree to restrict the power that police and prosecutors exert over individuals. While the decision will no doubt generate a myriad of questions, and likely be the basis for other court filings, there is much to celebrate.
The majority opinion was authored by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.