In a decision that could have wide-ranging impact, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sharply curtailed state and local authorities’ power to seize residents’ property, saying to do so violates the constitutional protection against excessive fines.
The unanimous ruling in an Indiana case follows years of complaints — including in Philadelphia — about civil forfeiture overreach by law enforcement agencies and courts. It extends to state and local authorities the same limits that apply to federal agencies.
Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that such penalties can be politically motivated, retaliatory, and an unfair way to raise revenue. Like the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail, Ginsburg’s opinion said, “protection against excessive fines guards against abuses" by government.
“The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and from the founding of our country, it has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection," she wrote.
The court’s narrow decision did not address the standard of what is considered excessive. Current law weighs the proportionality of the amount of property taken vs. the gravity of an offense.
How quickly the impact could be felt was not known. “It’s just not yet completely clear what the Supreme Court ruling would mean at the N.J. local level,” Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said in an email.
But the court’s ruling removes any doubts that the Constitution’s protection against excessive fines applies fully to the states, the nonprofit Institute for Justice said Wednesday. A lawyer with the institute had argued the case, Timbs v. Indiana.
"States and localities nationwide take economic sanctions too far, routinely,” said Sam Gedge, an institute attorney.
The case was brought by Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, who pleaded guilty in state court to dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft.
When police arrested him in 2013, they seized a $42,000 Land Rover SUV that Timbs paid for with money he got from an insurance policy when his father died. The state wanted to keep it, saying Timbs had used it to transport heroin. Because the maximum fine for his conviction was $10,000, the trial court denied the state’s request. The state appealed to Indiana’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the Constitution’s excessive-fines clause applied only to the federal government.
Gedge said the U.S. Supreme Court decision underscores that fears of “governments’ abusing the powers to punish are real, and there are constitutional protections against them.”
Criticism centers on forfeitures that are not proportionate to crimes, the taking of money and property from innocent people, and the profiting of city police and prosecutors from residents’ property.
Nationwide, “police and prosecutors get a cut, often a big cut, of the property they take. That creates an incentive,” Gedge said. “They very well may take property with an eye towards their budgets rather than an eye towards justice.”
Pennsylvania law allows officials to seize assets they believe were connected to drug activity.
At its height a few years ago, Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program pulled in $6 million per year and seized thousands of homes and vehicles. While in office, then-District Attorney Seth Williams said state forfeiture laws were effective tools for hindering drug operations.
In that suit, lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis and his wife, Markela, were evicted and their Northeast Philadelphia home seized in 2014 after police arrested their son for selling $40 worth of drugs outside.
City officials agreed in September to settle the suit by paying $3 million to them and to other plaintiffs whose property was unfairly seized or never returned. They also agreed to change policy to limit cash and property seizures.
At the time, Mayor Jim Kenney said the settlement “makes Philadelphia a more just city.”
Gedge said the institute was “thrilled with the progress” in Philadelphia under District Attorney Larry Krasner, who won office last year on a platform opposing civil asset forfeiture.
Ben Waxman, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said Wednesday it was too early to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision, but said the office already had instituted “big reforms” regarding civil asset forfeiture.
“We only seize property if a person has actually been convicted of a crime, and there is clear evidence linking the property to criminal activity or proceeds connected to criminal activity,” Waxman said in a statement.
Louis Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who specializes in civil forfeiture, said the “strong language” of Wednesday’s decision should make law enforcement agencies reexamine “the harsh laws they’re enforcing against private property” and make state courts more closely weigh citizens’ rights.
“It’s an important [decision], and one that is very welcome to help protect the rights of ordinary citizens against excessive takings by the government,” he said. “Our citizens will hopefully feel more secure in their rights against wrongful government property-taking.”