Timbs v. Indiana, No. 17-1091 (U.S. Feb. 20, 2019).
So now we know: The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an “incorporated” protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided Timbs v. Indiana, letting us know that the excessive-fines clause is “‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.’” (Citation omitted; alterations in the original.)
Mr. Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, and the trial court gave him a year of home detention and five years of probation. He also had fees and costs totaling $1,203.
Things got interesting in relation to Mr. Timb’s Land Rover, which police had seized during the arrest. Timbs had paid some $42,000 for the vehicle, using money he had received from an insurance policy when his father died. Although the state court found that the vehicle had been used to facilitate violation of a criminal statute, it denied the requested forfeiture, reasoning that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for the drug conviction. As things unfolded, however, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the Excessive Fines Clause constrained only federal action and was inapplicable to state impositions. The Supreme Court granted cert.
And so here we are with a new understanding of the Eighth Amendment, fines, and due process.
The opinion notes that “all 50 States have a constitutional provision prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality.” It points out that, “[f]or good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”
The Court rejected Indiana’s argument “that the Excessive Fines Clause cannot be incorporated if it applies to civil in rem forfeitures.” It reasoned that, “[i]n considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a protection contained in the Bill of Rights, we ask whether the right guaranteed—not each and every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted.”
Justice Gorsuch concurred, looking at things from a slightly different perspective: “As an original matter, I acknowledge, the appropriate vehicle for incorporation may well be the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause, rather than, as this Court has long assumed, the Due Process Clause.”
In his concurrence, Justice Thomas fully adopted the privileges-or-immunities approach. He went all in, pushing substantive-due-process buttons: “Because the oxymoronic ‘substantive’ ‘due process’ doctrine has no basis in the Constitution, it is unsurprising that the Court has been unable to adhere to any ‘guiding principle to distinguish “fundamental” rights that warrant protection from nonfundamental rights that do not.’” He declined “to apply the ‘legal fiction’ of substantive due process.”