U.S. Supreme Court Limits States’ Civil Forfeiture Practices

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

An accused person pleads guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police officers, is sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation; and is also ordered to pay $1,200 in fees and fines. The accused person’s Land Rover, the car he was driving at the time of the arrest, is also seized during the arrest and forfeited in a subsequent and separate civil forfeiture action. This real-life scenario was the case that triggered a review of the State of Indiana’s civil forfeiture practice of seizing instruments of a crime by the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Decision

The eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars excessive fines and limits the ability of the federal government to seize property. Now, this limitation also applies to state governments. In a 9 – 0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibit the practice of civil forfeiture as it is currently exercised by the states.

Civil Forfeiture Actions at a Glance

Civil forfeiture is a practice by state and local governments of taking of cash, cars, houses, and other assets used to commit crimes. For decades, opponents of the practice have criticized it as a revenue producing program subject to unchecked abuse. The problem with the practice is that value of the property seized is out of proportion to the crimes involved in the charged offense.

Indiana Case

In Tyson Timbs v. Indiana, the defendant argued that the seizure of his Land Rover, an asset he purchased with the proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy, was excessive. The State of Indiana argued that the Land Rover was used to commit a crime, the sale of heroin totaling $225, and as such, was justified. The Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Timbs and ruled that the seizure of the Land Rover in this case was excessive and sent the case back to the lower court to resolve what the value of the seized item should be.

Property used during the commission of a crime will still be seized. However, an independent inquiry will be made to determine what the penalty will be.

Civil Forfeiture is an Assessed Penalty in Resolution of Criminal Cases

The monetary fines and penalties surrounding a criminal conviction often are larger than the underlying value of the offense charged. Many defendants are most concerned with their liberty and whether their actions will result in jail time. The monetary penalties can be equally devastating. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in San Diego, contact a qualified San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney who can help mitigate penalties today and explain your legal rights and responsibilities. Available 24/7, the Boertje Law Firm represents clients at any stage of the criminal case and for any crime charged.

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