Across the country, police use civil asset forfeiture as a tool in the War on Drugs. When the police deem property or money to be associated with a drug crime, they can seize it. Then, the owner has to prove that the assets were not connected with a crime. If they can’t, they lose the assets forever — even if they are not convicted of any crime. The police agency that seized the assets gets to keep them.
Civil asset forfeiture is a major issue all across the United States. Law enforcement considers it a crucial tool used to disrupt drug trafficking and organized crime. Civil liberties groups, however, argue that it is disproportionately used on low-level offenders, not drug gangs. Moreover, allowing the police to keep the proceeds of these seizures has been called “policing for profit.”
In the case of a man named Tyson Timbs, the state of Indiana seized his $42,000 Land Rover as being used in connection with a drug crime. Timbs pled guilty to selling heroin to undercover officers. The maximum fine for his conviction was $10,000, but the police seized the vehicle because he allegedly drove it during the drug sale. He hadn’t bought the Land Rover with drug money; it was purchased with the proceeds of his late father’s life insurance policy.
Timbs fought the loss of his vehicle, arguing that the seizure was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines prohibition applies to civil asset forfeitures by state governments.
Unfortunately for Timbs, the Supreme Court did not specifically rule that the seizure of his SUV was excessive. It left that for the Indiana courts to decide.
Earlier this spring, an Indiana court determined that the seizure had been excessive and ordered the state to return Timbs’s Land Rover. The Indiana Attorney General, however, is appealing that decision. Again.
Civil asset forfeiture is still legal, although states now have to consider whether these seizures are constitutionally excessive. That said, the seizures may not be good public policy, in the end.
“To me, the State’s refusal to give back my car has never made sense,” Timbs said in a press release. “If they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and be contributing members of society.”