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Will the Supreme Court limit civil forfeiture?

This week, the United States Supreme Court decided to take up a case involving the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws. “Civil forfeiture” occurs when law enforcement seizes the property of a person suspected of committing a crime, even if that person is never arrested or charged with a crime.

While some argue that civil forfeiture helps law enforcement go after criminal organizations by seizing their money and assets, the practice is highly controversial and has been criticized by people across the political spectrum. Personally, I have seen civil forfeiture and seizure laws abused by the government many times. I have seen innocent people lose their property and savings, and have watched the government try to force them to give up their assets to avoid a threatened criminal prosecution. Civil forfeiture needs to go.

To take someone’s property through civil forfeiture, the government only needs to show that it is more likely than not that the person obtained the property through criminal activity, a far easier standard than proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed a crime. Because law enforcement gets to keep the property they seize, they have a financial incentive to continue abusing civil forfeiture laws.

The case the Supreme Court agreed to accept involves a man named Mr. Timbs. In his petition Mr. Timbs argued that his constitutional rights were violated when the State of Indiana seized his Toyota Land Rover. The case began when Mr. Timbs was arrested and convicted for minor drug crimes. He served a year on house arrest and was ordered to pay $1,200 in court fees.

The state also wanted to seize and forfeit Mr. Timbs’s Land Rover, despite the fact that Mr. Timbs could prove he purchased the car with life-insurance money he received when his father died. Because the government claimed that Mr. Timbs’s used the Land Rover frequently to pick up heroin, the Land Rover was an “instrumentality” of the crime and subject to seizure.

While law enforcement generally has the power to seize property involved in a crime, the Supreme Court is now being asked to define the limits of that power. That begins with answering the question of whether the state’s seizure of Mr. Timbs’s Land Rover was an unconstitutionally “excessive fine” under the Eighth Amendment.

Most people know the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” but it also prohibits the government from imposing “excessive fines.” Mr. Timbs argues in his petition that the state violated his Eighth Amendment rights when it seized his car. He points out that the maximum fine for a felony conviction is $10,000 under Indiana law, so seizing his $40,000 car constituted an “excessive fine.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could be very significant. If the Court rules that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines clause applies to the states, states will be much more limited in when they can seize a person’s property and how much of it they can seize. Traffic stops may no longer justify seizing a person’s property. States may be prohibited from using a person’s conviction to justify seizing everything that person owns, even property that was involved in a crime.

Until the Court rules that way, however, innocent people’s property is being seized by both federal and state governments, many times for reasons that are not fair, just or constitutional.  I have been helping people fight the government and recover seized property for over 20 years. I am one of very few lawyers who have fought and won a civil forfeiture jury trial against the federal government.

I love being able to help innocent people get their property back when it’s been wrongfully taken by the government. If you have had money, property or other assets seized by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor, feel free to give me a call to discuss your case. We may be able to help.