SCOTUS: The excessive fines clause of the 8A applies to the states via 14A as to in rem forfeitures

Timbs v. Indiana, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 1350 (Feb. 20, 2019). Syllabus:

Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for $42,000 with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State sought civil forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, charging that the SUV had been used to transport heroin. Observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction, the trial court denied the State’s request. The vehicle’s forfeiture, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.

Held: The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Pp. 2-9.

(a) The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates and renders applicable to the States Bill of Rights protections “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 767, 130 S. Ct. 3020, 177 L. Ed. 2d 894 (alterations omitted). If a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires. Pp. 2-3.

(b) The prohibition embodied in the Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties. They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue. The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is indeed overwhelming. Pp. 3-7.

(c) Indiana argues that the Clause does not apply to its use of civil in rem forfeitures, but this Court held in Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 113 S. Ct. 2801, 125 L. Ed. 2d 488, that such forfeitures fall within the Clause’s protection when they are at least partially punitive. Indiana cannot prevail unless the Court overrules Austin or holds that, in light of Austin, the Excessive Fines Clause is not incorporated because its application to civil in rem forfeitures is neither fundamental nor deeply rooted.

The first argument, overturning Austin, is not properly before this Court. The Indiana Supreme Court held only that the Excessive Fines Clause did not apply to the States. The court did not address the Clause’s application to civil in rem forfeitures, nor did the State ask it to do so. Timbs thus sought this Court’s review only of the question whether the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment. Indiana attempted to reformulate the question to ask whether the Clause restricted States’ use of civil in rem forfeitures and argued on the merits that Austin was wrongly decided. Respondents’ “right, … to restate the questions presented,” however, “does not give them the power to expand [those] questions,” Bray v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic, 506 U.S. 263, 279, n. 10, 113 S. Ct. 753, 122 L. Ed. 2d 34 (emphasis deleted), particularly where the proposed reformulation would lead the Court to address a question neither pressed nor passed upon below, cf. Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 718, n. 7, 125 S. Ct. 2113, 161 L. Ed. 2d 1020.

The second argument, that the Excessive Fines Clause cannot be incorporated if it applies to civil in rem forfeitures, misapprehends the nature of the incorporation inquiry. In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a Bill of Rights protection, this Court asks whether the right guaranteed—not each and every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted. To suggest otherwise is inconsistent with the approach taken in cases concerning novel applications of rights already deemed incorporated. See, e.g., Packingham v. North Carolina, 582 U. S. ___, ___, 137 S. Ct. 1730, 198 L. Ed. 2d 273. The Excessive Fines Clause is thus incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted. Pp. 7-9.

84 N. E. 3d 1179, vacated and remanded.

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