Seven years after authorities in Indiana confiscated a car from a drug addict who sold a few grams to an undercover officer, and 14 months after the Supreme Court ruled against the state, the $35,000 Land Rover is being returned to Tyson Timbs.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive fines applied to the states.
Now, Judge Jeffrey D. Todd of the Grant County Superior Court has ruled the forfeiture of the car was disproportionate.
“Tyson Timbs was an opiate a (sic) user who committed a victimless crime in violation of a statute promulgated primarily to punish a class of individuals into which he did not fall,” the judge said. “In the criminal case brought against him the state agreed that his crime warranted the minimum sentence of six years with no time to be served in the Grand County Jail or the Indiana Department of Corrections. At the time of his arrest Timbs was an unemployed addict with virtually no criminal record who sold a few grams of heroin to law enforcement. Although he was broke, he was ordered to pay fees and costs excess of $1,200.00.
“Thereafter, the state sought forfeiture of his only asset; an asset he purchased using life insurance proceeds rather than drug money, and a tool essential to maintaining employment, obtaining treatment, and reducing the likelihood that he would ever again commit another criminal offense,” the judge said.
“After taking into account the harshness of the punishment, the severity of the offense and his culpability, the court finds, by a significant margin, that Timbs has overcome his burden to establish that the harshness of the forfeiture of his 2013 Land Rover is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense.”
The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court. The state court returned it to the local court, which originally ruled the confiscation was excessive.
The judge ordered the state to return the vehicle “immediately.”
“For years, this case has been important not just for me, but for thousands of people who are caught up in forfeiture lawsuits,” said Tyson in a statement released by his lawyers. “To me, the state’s refusal to give back my car has never made sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and be contributing members of society.”
Sam Gedge, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which defended Timbs, recounted the “abusive forfeiture.”
“As the court correctly recognized, the state’s campaign to take Tyson’s car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail,” he said. “The state of Indiana has spent over a half-decade trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict. No one should have to spend seven years fighting the government just to get back their car, and we look forward to the Indiana Attorney General’s restoring Tyson’s property to him without further delay.”
Timbs had purchased the vehicle with the proceeds of life insurance on his father. But after his court case, the state demanded ownership.
Both the trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals originally said the punishment was excessive, since the maximum fine for the offense was only $10,000.
But the Indiana Supreme Court said local jurisdictions could ignore the Eighth Amendment’s protections.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision.
IJ noted the state of Indiana has not announced whether it will appeal the decision again.
John Whitehead, whose Rutherford Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court arguing that the confiscation was unreasonable, said: “Let’s not mince words: civil asset forfeiture laws give police the green light to rob, pilfer, steal, thieve, swipe, purloin, filch and liberate American taxpayers of even more of their hard-earned valuables (especially if it happens to be significant amounts of cash) using any means, fair or foul.
“Hopefully, this ruling will remove the profit incentives associated with asset forfeiture schemes that allow state governments and police to pad their pockets by engaging in what has become a modern-day form of highway robbery.”
Most law-enforcement agencies benefit directly when they confiscate cash or property from people accused of crimes.