Nov 4, 2019
"In February, in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to state and local governments (as well as the federal government) and that it constrains civil asset forfeitures. Civil asset forfeiture policies enable law enforcement agencies to seize property that they suspect might have been used in a crime—including in many cases where the owner has never been convicted of anything, or even charged.
To determine if a forfeiture would be "grossly disproportional" and unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause, the Indiana Supreme Court devised a three-factor test. First, Hoosier courts will now have to consider the "harshness of the punishment," which may include considering if the forfeiture would remedy the harm cause by the offense and to what extent, as well as property's value and role in the offense.
Judges will also need to determine what effect forfeiting the property would have on the owner. After all, courts already consider a person's economic resources when it comes to levying court costs and civil punitive damages.
"The owner's economic means—relative to the property's value—is an appropriate consideration," Chief Justice Rush wrote. "To hold the opposite would generate a new fiction: that taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally." Second, courts in Indiana must determine the "severity of the offense," which includes examining statutory penalties, the sentence imposed, and the harm cause by the crime. Finally, judges will also be required to consider an owner's culpability and "blameworthiness for the property's use as an instrumentality of the underlying offenses." A forfeiture may be unconstitutionally excessive "if a claimant is entirely innocent of the property's misuse."
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