US Supreme Court to weigh in on civil asset forfeiture

In Harmelin v. Michigan, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the special danger inherent in governments using economic fines for punishment. Unlike other forms of punishment that cost the government money, fines are a revenue source. That source can act as gasoline that propels the government in search of prosecutions for fines in areas where previously it never would have searched.

Because of that, to use Justice Scalia’s words, “it makes sense to scrutinize governmental action more closely when the State stands to benefit.”

This concern and others are at play in Timbs v. Indiana, a case presently pending before the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Timbs is arguing the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to the states. He is challenging Indiana’s civil forfeiture of his $42,000 Land Rover following an attempted small quantity drug sale. The value of the Land Rover is nearly four times the maximum criminal fine he could receive for his criminal conviction.

This case is part of a larger debate that is occurring nationwide over the use of civil asset forfeiture proceedings to seize private property. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, also called civil in rem forfeiture proceedings, permit the government to seize property that it alleges is connected to criminal activity.