Pomerantz LLP

The Supreme Court's Unanimous Decision in Tims V. Indiana Represents A Decisive Victory for Criminal Justice Reform


In an era where many states and localities are trying to plug their budget deficits by imposing draconian “civil forfeitures” on alleged criminals, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in February in Tims v. Indiana is a decisive victory against some of the most egregious abuses stemming from this practice. In this case, defendant Tims argued that the state of Indiana imposed an excessive fine on him when it seized his sports utility vehicle, valued at $42,000, after he was arrested for selling heroin. The value of this SUV was more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against Tims for his drug conviction. The Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, overturned the forfeiture and, in the process, held that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, because it is a safeguard “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” with “deep roots in our history and tradition.”

Tims pleaded guilty in Indiana Court to selling heroin to undercover officers. In addition to sentencing Tims to a year of house arrest, five years’ probation, and assessing reasonable fines and fees, Indiana sought civil forfeiture of a $42,000 SUV Tims had purchased with the proceeds of an insurance policy he received when his father died. The trial court denied Indiana’s request, noting that the vehicle had been recently purchased (and was therefore not likely part of the proceeds of his crime) and was valued at more than four times the maximum fine. Therefore, the trial court determined that the seizure of the SUV would be grossly disproportionate to Tims’ crime and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause did not apply to state action. Tims appealed.

As Justice Ginsburg remarked, the Supreme Court has held, with only a handful of exceptions, that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause “incorporates” many of the protections in the Bill of Rights, thus rendering them applicable to the states. A Bill of Rights protection is incorporated if it is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.” In holding that the Excessive Fines Clause is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” Justice Ginsburg traced the adoption of the prohibition against excessive fines back to the Magna Carta, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and similar colonial-era provisions. Justice Ginsburg also noted that by the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, 35 of the 37 states expressly prohibited excessive fines in order to guard against such fines being used to subjugate the newly freed slaves “and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy.” Justice Ginsburg further noted that historically, excessive fines were used to undermine other constitutional liberties.

Indiana argued that the Clause, as applied to in rem forfeitures (i.e. seizure of specific property), is neither “fundamental” nor “deeply rooted.” In Austin v. United States, the Court held that civil in rem forfeitures fall within the Excessive Fines Clause protection when they are at least partially punitive. While Austin arose in the federal context, the Court noted that when a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, the protection applies identically to the federal government and the states.

The Court held that the proper question in determining whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a protection contained in the Bill of Rights is whether the right guaranteed – rather than each and every particular application of that right – is fundamental or deeply rooted. Thus, regardless of whether application of the Excessive Fines Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted, the conclusion that the Clause is incorporated remains unchanged. The Court remanded the case to the Indiana Supreme Court for determination of whether the seizure of Tims’ SUV was excessive under this standard.

The Tims decision was cheered by advocates of criminal justice reform who have argued that civil asset forfeiture laws create an incentive for abuse. In many places, such laws facilitate the seizing of assets from individuals who have not been convicted of or even charged with a crime, and require only a tenuous connection between the crime and the seized asset. For example, in January 2019 an investigation conducted by The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail uncovered that the South Carolina police seized more than $17 million over a three year period through civil asset forfeiture. The investigation concluded that a review of the cases demonstrates that the “police are systematically seizing cash and property—many times from people who aren’t guilty of a crime— netting millions of dollars each year” and that “nearly a fifth of the 4,000 people who had their property seized by South Carolina police between 2014 and 2016 were never arrested nor even charged with a related crime.”

Additionally, critics of civil asset forfeiture laws contend that they are disproportionally harmful to lower-income communities and communities of color. For example, an investigation conducted by The Washington Post concluded that “of the 400 court cases examined where people challenged seizures and received money back, the majority were Black, Hispanic or another minority.” Another investigation found that Philadelphia cash forfeitures disproportionally target African-Americans who, while making up 44% of the population, are subject to an astounding 71% of forfeitures without conviction.

Critics of the Tims decision argue that the ruling will create financial challenges to police departments that have come to rely on civil forfeitures as a way to finance police operations. After Tims, they will have to look elsewhere for their funds.