US Supreme Courts Limits Police Powers to Seize Private Property


Police abused civil forfeiture laws for so long that the Supreme Court stepped in. But one ruling won’t end it.

Arbitrary state actions are exactly what the courts should be checking, and the Timbs decision provides a way to challenge many such abuses.

By Scott Lemieux | 21 February 2019

NBC NEWS — Civil forfeiture is sometimes a perfectly legitimate practice: Thieves do not have a right to keep the property they’ve stolen, for example. But the state’s power to compel the transfer of property from suspected criminal to the state has become a major tool in the War on [Some Classes of People Who Use Some] Drugs and, as with so much of this war, has become rife with abuse and arbitrary exercises of state power.

The case of Tyson Timbs is a good example of this abuse with which the system has become rife. Timbs was charged and ultimately convicted of selling a small amount of heroin to an undercover police officer. In addition to a suspended six-year sentence, the state seized Timbs’s $42,000 Land Rover — even though he could prove that the vehicle was purchased with money received from a life insurance policy and not the proceeds of his low-level criminal enterprise. So while $10,000 is the maximum fine under Indiana Law for the offense of which he was convicted, he was effectively fined much more than that amount when the state seized his car.

The Supreme Court, though, may have just curtailed the abuse of this practice.

On Tuesday, in its unanimous ruling in Timbs v. Indiana, the court for the first time held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines” also applies to state and local governments. And, even more importantly, the court rejected Indiana’s argument that, even if the excessive fines clause applies to the state, it does not apply to the civil forfeiture of the assets of criminals (or suspected criminals.)

In her relatively brief opinion for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the conclusion of the Indiana Supreme Court that the civil forfeiture was lawful. Ginsburg — speaking for eight of the court’s nine members — held that, like the vast majority of the Bill of Rights, the excessive fines clause is a fundamental right that applies to the states under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. And, since the court had already held in a 1993 federal case that civil forfeitures that are even partly punitive are governed by the excessive fines clause, applying the clause to the states made the case easy. […]

How the Feds Are Using Civil Asset Forfeiture to Threaten Free Speech

Sex, publishing, and quasi-legal theft collide in the Backpage prosecution.

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown | 20 February 2019

REASON — Prosecutors are ignoring the Constitution and legal precedent in their zeal to punish the founders and former staff of Backpage, by seizing money and other assets that stem from protected speech and legal activity.

In general, as the Supreme Court held in Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana (1989), the Fourth Amendment says that “any and all contraband, instrumentalities, and evidence of crimes may be seized upon probable cause.” But this changes “when materials presumptively protected by the First Amendment are involved.”

Nonetheless, federal prosecutors are arguing that they’re entitled to all money made by Backpage, even proceeds derived from unquestionably legal ads, and that decades worth of earnings made by former Backpage leaders before the website even existed are also tainted. […]

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