By Roman Friedrich
Will Timbs drive his Rover again?
This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a high-profile case dealing with the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads as follows:
„Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.“
The case in which the Eighth Amendment comes into play, Timbs v. Indiana, revolves around an Indiana man whose Land Rover was taken away after his conviction on state drug charges. In 2015 Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to drug charges after being caught selling heroin. He received a six-year sentence, including home detention and five years on probation. Additionally, the sentencing court ordered Timbs to forfeit his $42,000-car, based on the assumption that he had used the car to transport drugs.
Timbs challenged the forfeiture and the state trial court ruled that requiring Timbs to forfeit the Land Rover would violate the excessive fines clause contained in the Eighth Amendment. The car, it must be noted, was worth roughly four times more than the maximum monetary fine that the state could impose and therefore would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of his crime. (This is, roughly, the standard that is used when determining the excessiveness of a fine, see Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, 212 U.S. 86 ).
An intermediate appeals court agreed but the Indiana Supreme Court did not, holding that the excessive fines clause did not apply to the States. It must be remembered at this point that the Bill of Rights, which contains most of the fundamental rights, generally applies only to the federal government. The Supreme Court, has, however, over decades of jurisprudence, extended the application of most rights to the individual States (which is called „incorporation“, see Stephen J. Wermiel, Rights in the Modern Era: Applying the Bill of Rights to the States, 1 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 121 , 121).
The prohibition of excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment, so far, is one of the few rights contained in the Bill of Rights which the Supreme Court has never held to provide protection against the individual States (see McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S , Footnote 13).
For the Supreme Court to eventually incorporate the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment, Timbs will need to show the long history of protection against such fines in the U.S. legal tradition. Timbs is backed by a large alliance ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the American Civil Liberties Union (Amy Howe, Argument preview: Justices to consider whether Eighth Amendment ban on “excessive fines” applies to the states, Scotusblog, November 21, 2018).