Photo: Land Rover

Here’s a situation that you may not have considered: you’re driving along, riding a little dirty. Cops pull you over, and find a substantial, but not crazy large, amount of contraband in your car. Say, less than $1,000. They arrest you, and then they take your car. Forever. Even if it’s worth a lot more than $1,000. But in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has said that might not be totally kosher.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man who had his Land Rover seized following his conviction on minor drug charges. Timbs bought the SUV with money from his dad’s life insurance policy, not drug money, but the state seized it anyway. The Supreme Court’s ruling isn’t just about Timbs, though, and will affect huge numbers of people who have property seized excessively.

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Timbs’ 2012 Land Rover LR2 was taken as part of a practice known as civil forfeiture, in which state and local governments fine or seize people’s property after they’ve been tied up with some crime, often minor. It’s a cancer, as The New Yorker documented nearly six years ago; groups across the political spectrum filed briefs on behalf of Timbs.

He was convicted of selling less than $400 worth of heroin to undercover cops in 2013, after which the Land Rover—purchased for around $42,000—was seized. Timbs subsequently sued, and the case reached Indiana’s highest court before coming to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ordered Wednesday that Indiana courts reconsider that decision, according to USA Today, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the Supreme Court’s decision.

Ginsburg noted that other elements of the Eighth Amendment already are applicable to the states. The amendment states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” Ginsburg wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”

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Something interesting and something that I didn’t even know was possible was that the Land Rover was, in fact, a plaintiff in Timbs’ lawsuit.

Timbs’ conviction resulted in a year’s home detention, five years’ probation and about $1,200 in fees. But it was the seizure of his SUV that led to the lawsuit. The 2012 Land Rover LR2 was even a named plaintiff in the case.

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What does this mean more broadly? Possibly, not very much, as The New York Times reported that the decision was pretty narrow in scope. It compels Indiana to reconsider Timbs’ case, and will also compel other state courts to think more deeply about seizures and their proportionality when compared to the crime. But it’s merely a blow to civil forfeitures and not a death knell.

The decision will not halt civil forfeitures, said Wesley P. Hottot, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which represented the Land Rover’s owner.

“People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, they’re still going to have their property seized,” Mr. Hottot said. “The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, whether I’m guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive.”

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Civil forfeiture, as you probably assumed, hurts the most vulnerable among us the most. Just look at these cases, per USA Today, from November:

Among examples cited by left- and right-wing groups:

  • A Georgia man was sentenced to pay $360 monthly while on probation for stealing a $2 can of beer.
  • A Missouri couple racked up $180,000 in fines for lacking turf grass in their yard.
  • A Michigan man who underpaid his 2011 property tax by $8.41 had his property auctioned off for $24,500.
  • A Colorado man was fined $678 and racked up $1,680 more in collection fees for violating open container laws and driving without proof of insurance.
  • A Florida homeowner who did not register a burglar alarm with the local government accrued $75 daily fines, resulting in a $115,625 lien on his property.

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It’s kind of remarkable to me that conservatives and liberals can agree on anything these days but it turns out a bullshit revenue stream for state, local and federal governments that also happens to likely be unconstitutional is one of them.