High court got it right about excessive fines and seizures

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The case was so clear-cut that all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed: The Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose financial penalties and seize property.

Tyson Timbs of Marion, Ind., was arrested in 2015 for selling a small amount of heroin. The maximum monetary penalty for Timbs’ crime was $10,000, but that didn’t stop local authorities from seizing his $42,000 Land Rover. The Indiana Supreme Court justified the deed by claiming that the Constitution’s excessive-fines clause didn’t apply to the states.

Last month, the nation’s highest court disagreed. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s main opinion. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. ... Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

With the ruling, Timbs will get a new day in court in Indiana. Others likely will as well.

“People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime,” said Wesley Hottot, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs. “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.”

Asset forfeiture, also known as “policing for profit,” allows law enforcement officers to confiscate property from convicted criminals — in some cases, suspected criminals — and sell it to boost their budgets. According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a ‘necessary’ part of their budget.” That creates an incentive to take as much money and property as they can.

“Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets,” said Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one.”

We agree. While law enforcement often needs more resources than local governments provide, asset forfeiture mars their integrity. They can’t just take things.

It’s also a practice that disproportionately affects the poor. Fines and forfeitures are sometimes contested and reduced, but even that costs money.

Some say, “You shouldn’t have broken the law.” There’s truth in that, of course. But in the U.S., the punishment must fit the crime. We don’t throw children into prison for shoplifting. We don’t pour gasoline over cars and set them on fire when drivers are caught speeding.

Criminal justice reform is a broader topic than covered by the court’s decision, and it’s a topic that authorities and advocates on the left and the right are beginning to take more seriously. Our laws must be fair or citizens will lose respect for the agencies that uphold them.

— Greensboro News & Record

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