U.S. Supreme Court rules that the excessive fines clause applies to the states and civil foreiftures

Police in Indians arrested seized Tyson Timb’s for dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. They seized his Land Rover that he had purchased for $42,000 with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died.Timbs pleaded guilty and the State sought forfeiture of his vehicle, charging that the SUV had been used to transport heroin.

The maximum monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction was $10,000  and the trial court denied the State’s request. The vehicle’s forfeiture, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.

Issue Presented:

The question presented: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishment” and “[e]xcessive bail,”   the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal-law-enforcement authority. The Supreme Court held that this  protection is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with “dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767. The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Historical Abuses of Excessive Fines

Following the Civil War, Southern States enacted Black Codes to maintain subjugation of freed slaves through exorbitant fines for violating broad proscriptions on “vagrancy” and other vague offenses. When newly freed slaves were unable to pay imposed fines, States often demanded involuntary labor instead. Congressional debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the joint resolution that became the Fourteenth Amendment, and similar measures repeatedly mentioned the use of fines to coerce involuntary labor.

State Protection from Excessive Fines

All 50 States have a constitutional provision prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality. Excessive fines  have been used to chill free speech and  employed “in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,” for “fines are a source of revenue,” while other forms of punishment “cost a State money.” Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957, 979, n. 9. The American Civil Liberties Union  noted in an amicus brief that: “Perhaps because they are politically easier to impose than generally applicable taxes, state and local governments nationwide increasingly depend heavily on fines and fees as a source of general revenue.”

 

In a concurring opinion Justice Thomas agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines fully applicable to the States. But he stated that the right to be free from excessive fines is one of the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The right against excessive fines goes back to the founding of our country and had  been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection. As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the States.