Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Adam Liptak


WASHINGTON - Tyson Timbs would like his Land Rover back.

The State of Indiana took it, using a law that lets it seize vehicles
used to transport illegal drugs. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed
to decide whether the Constitution has anything to say about such
civil forfeiture laws, which allow states and localities to take and
keep private property used to commit crimes.

Mr. Timbs bought the Land Rover after his father died. The life
insurance money amounted to around $73,000, and he spent $42,000 of it
on the vehicle. He blew most of the rest on drugs.

"Unfortunately, I had a whole bunch of money, which isn't a good idea
for a drug addict to have," Mr. Timbs recalled the other day. "I used
a lot, and eventually the money ran out. It was an addict's life."

Mr. Timbs's habit started with an opioid addiction and progressed to
heroin. He used his Land Rover to get drugs and, on at least two
occasions, to sell them. The buyers were undercover police officers.

Mr. Timbs pleaded guilty to one of the drug sales, in which $225 had
changed hands, and he was sentenced to a year of house arrest followed
by five years of probation. He also agreed to pay an array of fees and
fines adding up to about $1,200.

But Indiana wanted more. Using the civil forfeiture law, it took the
Land Rover.

Mr. Timbs, 37, has put his life back together, but it has not been
easy. "I have to go to meetings, to counseling, to probation
appointments," he said, making clear that he was not

"They want you to get a job," he said. "It's hard to do without a
vehicle. Plus, I was a felon, which makes it even harder to find a

He found work as a machinist in a factory some 40 minutes from his
home in Marion, Ind., where he lives with his aunt. He borrows her car
to get to work, and he feels guilty about that.

"She has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis
appointments," he said.

As Justice Clarence Thomas explained last year in an opinion urging
the Supreme Court to examine civil forfeiture laws, government
seizures of property used to commit crimes have become worrisomely

"Forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and highly
profitable," Justice Thomas wrote. "And because the law enforcement
entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these
entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture."

"This system - where police can seize property with limited judicial
oversight and retain it for their own use - has led to egregious and
well-chronicled abuses," he wrote, citing excellent reporting from The
Washington Post and The New Yorker.

The burdens of civil forfeiture fall disproportionately on the poor,
said Wesley P. Hottot, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which
represents Mr. Timbs.

"Tyson's case illustrates how civil forfeiture makes it harder for
people who have made mistakes to correct those mistakes and re-enter
society," Mr. Hottot said. "It shouldn't take the United States
Supreme Court to make clear that you don't take everything from a
person who's facing the kinds of challenges Tyson is."

Mr. Timbs won the early rounds in Indiana's lawsuit seeking to take
his vehicle, based on the Eighth Amendment, which says that "excessive
bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and
unusual punishments inflicted."

Judge Jeffrey D. Todd, of the Grant County Superior Court, said the
amendment's second clause - the one barring "excessive fines" -
protected Mr. Timbs. The Land Rover, the judge wrote, was worth about
four times the maximum fine Mr. Timbs could have been ordered to pay,
which was $10,000. It was also worth more than 30 times the fines that
were actually imposed.

"The amount of the forfeiture sought is excessive and is grossly
disproportional to the gravity of the defendant's offense," Judge Todd

An appeals court agreed. In dissent, Judge Michael P. Barnes wrote
that civil forfeiture laws can be abused but that Mr. Timbs should
lose the vehicle.

"I am keenly aware of the overreach some law enforcement agencies have
exercised in some of these cases," Judge Barnes wrote. "Entire family
farms are sometimes forfeited based on one family member's conduct, or
exorbitant amounts of money are seized. However, it seems to me that
one who deals heroin, and there is no doubt from the record we are
talking about a dealer, must and should suffer the legal consequences
to which he exposes himself."

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Timbs, on interesting
grounds. It said the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive fines
did not apply to ones imposed by states.

This is, surprisingly, an open question. The Bill of Rights originally
restricted the power of only the federal government, but the Supreme
Court has ruled that most of its protections apply to the states under
the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, one of the post-Civil
War amendments.

But there are a few exceptions, and the Supreme Court has been
inconsistent about where it stands on the excessive fines clause. Mr.
Timbs's case is poised to resolve the question. It will be argued in
the fall.

In the meantime, Mr. Timbs sometimes lapses into frustration and

"I don't deserve this," he said. "Nobody does. It's an unnecessary
stressor. I struggle with more than addiction. I struggle with anxiety
and depression. I don't feel like much of a man, because I don't have
a vehicle."