Supreme Court Issues Landmark Ruling in Civil Asset Forfeiture Case

In the decision written and delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court of the United States issued their ruling in the case of Timbs vs. Indiana this last Wednesday, February 20th, 2019 and took a definitive stance against the controversial civil asset forfeiture program used by law enforcement agencies across the United States (full decision can be read here). Timbs, an Indiana resident, had been found guilty of selling heroin. Indiana law enforcement seized Mr. Timbs’ Land Rover (valued at roughly $40,000) through the state’s civil asset forfeiture program, as they claim the vehicle was used in the furtherance of a crime and was therefore subject to forfeiture. The Court, noting that the max fine for the crime that Timbs was charged with in the state of Indiana was only $10,000, and that the vehicle had been purchased with legal funds, found that the seizure of Timbs’ vehicle constituted a eighth amendment violation in the form of an excessive fine. The Court, through the Fourteenth Amendment, incorporated the eighth amendment to apply to the states.

For the uninitiated, civil asset forfeiture is a legal process by which law enforcement officials may seize an individual’s property in certain circumstances if they are suspected of, or found guilty of, committing a crime, but they need not be charged with a crime for law enforcement to keep their assets. Critics of the program have dubbed it a subversion of due process, citing countless occurrences of law enforcement officials abusing the program to seize assets in instances where the individual has not committed a crime.

Since 2004, the value of assets seized by law enforcement has risen nearly five fold, and in 2014 the total value of assets seized by civil asset forfeiture exceeded the value of assets stolen via burglary nationwide – totalling in $4.5 Billion of seized assets in 2014. In 2017, the Texas Attorney General reported that the state of Texas alone seized $50 million worth of assets. While there are valid uses for the program, such as the seizure of funds obtained during criminal acts, the lack of regulation and protections for individuals whose assets have been wrongly seized raises major concerns for liberty minded individuals and watchdog groups.

The decision rendered by the Court did not rule civil asset forfeiture in and of itself to be unconstitutional, but it has set a precedent that limits the amount that law enforcement officials can take from an individual, as well as putting limits on the seizure assets that were obtained legally, but used in the furtherance of a crime.

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