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Supreme Court Says That the States Can't Keep Stealing Your Stuff

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Supreme Court

In a rare unanimous opinion from our United States Supreme Court, they have limited the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize property and vehicles from citizens charged with various crimes. Tennessee law currently authorizes the seizure of vehicles from individuals who use that property or vehicle to commit arson, identity theft, drug activity (manufacturing, buying, or selling), driving on a revoked license, or a host of other alleged crimes. Once that asset was seized, the individual whose property was taken would be given notice of a hearing, called a civil asset forfeiture hearing, at which the individual would be able to appear and contest the seizure. Very often, lawyers such as myself would argue that the seizure of the property would amount to an unconstitutional taking of property without due process or that the seizure itself was an excessive fine prohibited by the Constitution, as I argued successfully in this seizure case, getting my client's car returned to her.

The United States Supreme Court officially agreed with that reasoning on Wednesday, issuing a written opinion in the case of Timbs v. Indiana. In that case, Mr. Timbs pleaded guilty to dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, an offense that carried a maximum fine of $10,000.00 under Indiana law. Indiana nevertheless sought a court ruling asking for forfeiture of Mr. Timbs Land Rover valued at $42,000.00, which he had allegedly purchased with insurance money he received when his Father passed away. Although the trial court ruled in Mr. Timbs's favor, saying the seizure would be unconstitutional, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed that ruling and held that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution only applied to the federal government and not the individual states. In essence, this ruling opened the door for the states to argue that there could be no federal check on a state's ability to post excessive and arbitrary bail amounts, excessive fines for criminal offenses (and thus, arbitrary property seizures), or impose cruel and unusual punishment on its citizens as all of these activities are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Indiana could therefore become a veritable wild, wild west where outlaws were rounded up, held without bail, had all of their belongings taken, and then punished in whatever manner that law enforcement saw fit. Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court saw the folly in such action, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg rose from the grave to author an opinion that illustrates the importance of due process.

Under the Eighth Amendment, "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Taken together, these Clauses place "parallel limitations" on "the power of those entrusted with the criminal-law function of government," wrote Ginsburg, which illustrates how far-reaching the Eighth Amendment's protections are and the inherent danger in doing away with them. The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment is applicable to both the states and the federal government by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, which among other things guarantees to every U.S. Citizen that no state can take any action which deprives that person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. In layman's terms, the Eighth Amendment guarantees that the federal government cannot unjustly take your stuff and the Fourteenth Amendment makes sure that the states can't either. This is known as the "Incorporation Doctrine," which is a legal principle that holds that the constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens in the first ten Amendments (known as the "Bill of Rights") are also binding on the States by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. As the Court put it: "If a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires." In other words, states cannot use a loophole to deprive you of protections that the Constitution otherwise gives you.

This is an important unanimous step forward in protecting the due process rights of ordinary citizens from a Court that has seemed more in favor of expanding law enforcement power as of late. While there is not necessarily any virtue in allowing drug dealers to keep their fancy cars, there is value in fairness and the principle that you cannot be punished more harshly than the law allows. That is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of the justice system and one of the key Constitutional rights that comes into play every day in the legal profession: the idea that individuals receive fair punishments for the crimes they commit, as set forth under the law. A justice system that did not make such a guarantee to its citizens would not be a system of justice at all. It would simply be a system set up to allow the government to take whatever they wanted by whatever means they decide to use. Or as St. Augustine once said, "In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?" 

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