Constitution Daily

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Supreme Court confirms Excessive Fines Clause applies to states

February 20, 2019 by Scott Bomboy


In a unanimous ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court overturned an Indiana Supreme Court decision that said that part of federal Constitution’s Eighth Amendment didn’t apply to the states.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the main opinion for the Court in Timbs v. Indiana, which was argued last November.

Link: Read The Decision

“The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause,” Ginsburg said. Justice Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch agreed with the main ruling, but they said the 14th Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause was the controlling factor in the case.

Tyson Timbs filed the lawsuit after he was convicted in a controlled substance and theft case. The state of Indiana wanted to seize Timbs’ Land Rover under its civil forfeiture laws, arguing it was used to commit a crime. But the Land Rover was valued at $42,000, much more than the $10,000 fine allowed under his drug conviction.

Timbs’ attorneys argued Indiana’s actions violated the Excessive Fines Clause in the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. After Timbs won his first legal battle, the Indiana Supreme Court said  the Excessive Fines Clause didn’t apply to individual states when they acted. Timbs’ appeal to the United States Supreme Court was only about the incorporation of the Excessive Fines Clause at the state level, and not its application to civil forfeiture cases.

“The historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is indeed overwhelming,” Ginsburg said. She also didn’t agree with Indiana’s argument that the nature of the case as a civil forfeiture mattered. “The Excessive Fines Clause is thus incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted,” she concluded.

Justice Gorsuch believed the question really involved a different part of the 14th Amendment. “As an original matter, I acknowledge, the appropriate vehicle for incorporation may well be the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause, rather than, as this Court has long assumed, the Due Process Clause,” he said. Justice Thomas had similar thoughts. “I would hold that the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the ‘privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States’ protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote.

Scott Bomboy is the editor and chief of the National Constitution Center.


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