WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared inclined to rule in favor of an Indiana man who has argued that police violated his constitutional rights by seizing his $42,000 Land Rover vehicle following his conviction for dealing heroin.
The appeal by Tyson Timbs asks the nine justices to decide whether the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on “excessive fines” applies to states as well as the federal government. Based on an hour of arguments, the court appears likely to rule that it does, which would give Timbs a chance to get his Land Rover back.
Timbs faced two counts of dealing in controlled substances and one count of conspiracy to commit theft after being caught in 2013 selling heroin to undercover police officers in Marion, Indiana. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to two of the three counts in exchange for the other being dropped. He was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation, though authorities seized his vehicle.
The vehicle was taken in a process called civil asset forfeiture that permits police to seize and keep property involved in a crime.
The case reaches the court against the backdrop of increased use of fines and other penalties in the U.S. criminal justice system, a trend criticized by civil liberties activists. Organizations from across the ideological spectrum backed Timbs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group.
The Eighth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, a term referring to the Constitution’s first 10 amendments that were ratified in 1791 as guarantees of individual rights and curbs on governmental power.
The Supreme Court has held that various parts of the Bill of Rights apply to the states, not just the federal government, including the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Most recently, in a 2010 gun rights decision, it ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms applies to the states.
Conservative and liberal justices appeared sympathetic to Timbs. Conservative Neil Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump last year, was the most outspoken, almost berating Indiana’s lawyer, state Solicitor General Thomas Fisher.
Gorsuch said there is a “pretty deep history” that indicates that the various amendments in the Bill of Rights should apply to the states and questioned why the issue was even being litigated.
“Here we are in 2018, still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General,” Gorsuch said.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative appointed by Trump this year, appeared similarly hostile to Indiana, wondering whether it is “too late in the day” to argue that the excessive fines clause does not apply to the states.
Timbs, who has admitted he was a drug addict, purchased the Land Rover in January 2013 with money he obtained from a life insurance policy that paid out following the death of his father.
Timbs has argued that the vehicle’s seizure constituted an excessive fine because he had dealt drugs only twice, was convicted of only one drug-dealing offense and the maximum fine for the offense was $10,000, far less than the vehicle’s value.
In 2015, an Indiana state judge ruled in Timbs’ favor. The state appealed, and in 2017, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed that ruling. Timbs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham