Supreme Court May Curb Property Grabs by the Government

Commentary & Community

Supreme Court May Curb Property Grabs by the Government

If someone commits a crime, the government may be able to seize any property connected to that crime – regardless of the crime’s severity or the value of the property. Today the Supreme Court is considering a case that may rein in a practice that people across the political spectrum argue is being abused.

 

The case involves Tyson Timbs, convicted of selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. His sentence for that crime was a year of home detention and five years of probation. The state of Indiana also seized his Land Rover, worth $42,000.

 

Lawyers for Timbs are not disputing that he sold the drugs. Instead, they are arguing that the seizure of the Land Rover violates the Constitutional prohibition on excessive fines. While the Eighth Amendment was originally written to apply only to the federal government, courts have held that the Fourteenth Amendment applies some of the Bill of Right’s protections to state governments. The prohibition on excessive fines, however, has not been one of those protections.

 

The practice of asset seizure and forfeiture is widely practiced by both states and the federal government. This is when the government confiscating property that is connected with crime, generally involving drugs, and keeping the property to use or sell. This can occur upon conviction of a crime or even upon the mere suspicion of criminal activity.

 

Timbs’ lawyers contend that the seizure of his $42,000 vehicle amounts to a fine. As such, they say, it is excessive to fine someone $42,000 for a crime that did not even involve jail time. They say that the Constitution forbids states from doing this. The lawyers for Indiana counter that this is not a fine, but is instead the seizure of property connected to drug trafficking. They say that states have broad authority to pass laws to combat such crimes.

 

Asset forfeiture has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years from groups on both the conservative and liberal side of the ideological spectrum. They argue that this practice gives governments an incentive to “police for profit,” using their power to look for lucrative assets to seize rather than focusing on other crime. They also contend that asset forfeiture disproportionately targets minorities and individuals in other disadvantaged groups. Timbs is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, and groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union are supporting him.

 

Justice Clarence Thomas has signaled in past decisions that the Supreme Court should look into asset forfeiture, noting that there have been many abuses of this practice.

 

Do you think that the government should be able to take the property of people convicted – or even suspected – of crimes, regardless of the value of the property or the level of crime?

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