After Eight Years And Three Reviews Of The Case, Indiana Supreme Court Rules Police Must Return Seized Car To Its Owner
from the thousands-of-dollars-spent-fighting-against-the-public's-interests dept
It’s now been eight years since Indiana law enforcement seized Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover following his arrest for distributing drugs. In eight years, this case has made multiple visits to the state trial court, the state court of appeals, the state’s Supreme Court, and the nation’s Supreme Court.
This isn’t just due to Timbs’ tenacity and his desire to have his car returned. His only car — worth $35,000 when it was seized — has been sitting in an impound lot for most of decade, all because of criminal charges that netted Timbs $1,200 in fines and one year of home detention.
No, these multiple trips are due to the state of Indiana attempting to prevent precedent from being set that would prevent it from seizing whatever it wants whenever it wants. Previous rulings found excessive fines — in this case taking the form of a $35,000 vehicle seizure over $400 of heroin sold to undercover officers — violate the Eighth Amendment. And these rulings also reminded the state that it had incorporated that part of the US Constitution years ago and couldn’t try to ignore it now just because it still wants to avail itself of Benjamins when ringing up people on nickel-and-dime charges.
So, for the third time, the Indiana state Supreme Court is forced to handle the Timbs case because the state has refused to accept every previous ruling that has gone against it, including the one handed down by the US Supreme Court. The opening of the ruling [PDF] expresses some of the court’s exasperation with the state’s stubbornness.
We chronicle and confront, for the third time, the State’s quest to forfeit Tyson Timbs’s now-famous white Land Rover. And, again, the same overarching question looms: would the forfeiture be constitutional?
Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick, this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again. During the voyage, several points have come to light. First, the vehicle’s forfeiture, due to its punitive nature, is subject to the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. Next, to stay within the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle must meet two requirements: instrumentality and proportionality. And, finally, the forfeiture falls within the instrumentality limit because the vehicle was the actual means by which Timbs committed the underlying drug offense.
All of these questions have been capably handled at each step of this long, laborious process. The problem is the state doesn’t like the answers it’s been getting. And the state Supreme Court doesn’t appear to like the state’s refusal to listen. There are some facts to consider, but as far as the state’s top court is concerned, they were answered amply by the lower court.
[U]ntil now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved—that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse? The State not only urges us to answer that question in the negative, but it also requests that we wholly abandon the proportionality framework from State v. Timbs, 134 N.E.3d 12, 35–39 (Ind. 2019). Today, we reject the State’s request to overturn precedent, as there is no compelling reason to deviate from stare decisis and the law of the case; and we conclude that Timbs met his burden to show gross disproportionality, rendering the Land Rover’s forfeiture unconstitutional.
The key is the excessive fines part of the Eighth Amendment. The courts must decide whether the seizure was proportionate. The lower court — after hearing from witnesses on Timbs’ behalf (the state decided not to call any of its own) — made the right call by weighing the cost against the crime. The seizure of Timbs’ only vehicle didn’t serve any greater public interest. All it did was enrich the state at Timbs’ expense.
[C]ontrary to the State’s position, we conclude that the $35,000 market value of the vehicle and the other sanctions imposed on Timbs point to the punitive, rather than remedial, nature of the forfeiture. As Timbs II explained, it’s appropriate to evaluate the market value of the forfeiture relative to the owner’s economic means—because “taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing” do not reflect equal punishments. 134 N.E.3d at 36. And, here, taking away a $35,000 asset from someone who owned nothing else was significantly punitive. Likewise, imposing the forfeiture on top of other sanctions—sanctions that included six years of restricted liberty as well as $1,200 in fees and costs — shows that the vehicle’s seizure was not for remedial purposes.
Finally this comes to an end, years after it should have been obvious seizing Timbs’ car violated the Eighth Amendment right to be free from excessive fines.
Accordingly, we affirm the trial court; and the seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.
The state and its law enforcement agencies are now subject to a proportionality test that weighs the severity of the crime against the value of the items seized. If this test stands during criminal asset forfeiture — the seizures accompanying actual criminal charges — it needs to be applied to cases where law enforcement can’t even be bothered to affect an arrest, much less pursue criminal charges when seizing property. This is good news for Indiana residents. And it has the potential to disrupt forfeiture efforts nationwide.