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Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Hoosier, Says High Fines Ban Applies To States

Tyson Timbs speaks with his lawyer outside in front of a fence

Tyson Timbs, right, has been fighting to get his Land Rover back since police seized it in 2013. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states, an outcome that could help efforts to rein in police seizure of property from criminal suspects.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana. Police seized Timbs' $40,000 Land Rover when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.

Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines "out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence" because fines are a source of revenue. The 85-year-old justice missed arguments last month following lung cancer surgery, but returned to the bench on Tuesday.

Watch: Tyson Timbs On Why He Brought The Lawsuit

Timbs pleaded guilty to a drug charge, but faced no prison time. The biggest loss was the Land Rover he bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died.

Wesley Hottot from the libertarian public interest firm Institute for Justice represented Timbs. He says it's unclear when Timbs could get his car back. 

"I mean five years on it would make a lot of sense just to call the whole thing off and return the truck to Tyson," he says. "But, if they want to fight about it, we will take the fight to the Indiana State Courts."

A judge previously ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana's top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.

The case drew interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation.

Law enforcement authorities have dramatically increased their use of civil forfeiture in recent decades. When law enforcement seizes the property of people accused of crimes, the proceeds from its sale often go directly to the agency that took it, Hottot said in his written arguments in support of Timbs.

But Hottot doesn't expect the ruling to have a big impact on what he calls "policing for profit."

"We now know that trial judges are empowered to put a stop to that," Hottot says. "But, we still are going to see, I believe, police and prosecutors taking things from people that they shouldn’t."

Hottot says that won't stop unless legislators change laws allowing police and prosecutors to keep some of the proceeds from forfeitures. 

In a statement Attorney General Curtis Hill says while the state argued for a different outcome in the case, he respect's the court's decision. 

The case is Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091.

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