The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution restricts the power of states and localities to permanently seize property without pressing criminal charges, saying the practice violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “excessive fines.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced the decision, which will deliver a financial hit to state and local treasuries and force many law enforcement agencies to change their procedures.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote in a case involving an Indiana man, Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by police after he was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin.
“Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies,” Ginsburg wrote. “Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed 'in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.'”
Civil asset forfeiture, which is extensively employed by state and local governments, sends hundreds of millions of dollars into state and federal coffers every year. According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm, net proceeds from civil asset forfeitures across 14 states more than doubled between 2002 and 2013, jumping from around $100 million to $250 million.
But the practice has become controversial over the past several years, and some states have considered changes in the programs.
One day before the Supreme Court ruled, more than 80 members of the South Carolina House cosponsored a bill that would end civil asset forfeiture, which allowed South Carolina police to garner more than $17.6 million from 3,200 residents in just three years, according to news reports.
“There are too many instances of individuals who have seen their private property seized by the state or federal government and never so much as be charged with a crime,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Republican, said at a news conference. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s wrong.”
Nebraska abolished the procedure in 2016 and Montana in 2015. The two states now require a criminal conviction before forfeiture can take place. New Mexico got rid of it altogether.
Efforts to abolish civil asset forfeiture have brought together a coalition of conservatives, who have argued that it is unconstitutional to force people to surrender property, and liberals, who have noted that it is disproportionately applied to poor people who can least afford to have their belongings seized.
A team of reporters from USA Today Network investigated the practice in South Carolina and found that police sometimes don’t even make an arrest in these cases, black men are disproportionately hit, and while it takes only minutes to confiscate cash or property, it could take years to get it back.