Jim Dey | Copping crook's car captures high court's eye

Jim Dey | Copping crook's car captures high court's eye

Tyson Timbs just wants his sport utility vehicle back.

He may get it, but in a way he probably never contemplated — through a precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects those who get crosswise with the law and suffer unreasonable seizures of their personal property.

The case from Marion, Ind., is one of the higher-profile disputes to be heard so far in the current Supreme Court term. It has drawn broad support for Timbs, once a low-level drug dealer, that ranges from conservative groups (Judicial Watch) and the business community (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) to liberals (the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center).

Timbs was arrested in 2013 for selling small quantities of heroin to state authorities.

He received a sentence of probation, but the government won an order requiring him to forfeit his 2012 Range Rover, worth an estimated $42,000, because he used it to drive to and from his drug sales.

Timbs challenged the forfeiture as an excessive fine prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A trial court and a state appeals court agreed with him.

But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed those findings on the grounds that the Eighth Amendment guarantee protects citizens against excessive fines imposed by the federal government, not the states.

In fact, the protections of the Eighth Amendment have not been incorporated through the 14th Amendment to the states, as have most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights.

"By the time oral arguments ended (Tuesday) morning, the justices seemed ready to say that the excessive-fines clause does apply to the states, even if they don't say much more than that," said Amy Howe, a legal analyst for SCOTUSblog.

The Timbs case provides another interesting tutorial on history and law, raising a question that most people probably have never considered: To which level of government do the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights apply?

Initially, it was federal, not states. The states, however, drafted their own constitutions that included many, if not all, of the individual rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Federal courts started officially applying individual rights outlined in the Bill of Rights after ratification of the post-Civil War 14th Amendment, which specifically barred states from making or enforcing "any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

In Timbs' case, justices appeared to enthusiastically embrace the idea that incorporation of the excessive-fines prohibition through the 14th Amendment is appropriate, to the point of openly challenging Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher's argument to the contrary.

"Really? Come on," Justice Neil Gorsuch said to Fisher.

Justice Elena Kagan told Fisher that, in effect, the real issue is not whether citizens are protected from excessive fines imposed by the states, but instead, what is the "scope of the right."

Perhaps that's why Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the court might rule in Timbs' favor on the overall issue while sending the case back to the state courts to determine whether the forfeiture of the vehicle qualifies as "excessive."

Two state courts have already ruled in Timbs' favor on that issue.

A secondary issue involves forfeiture of property used in the process of committing a crime. Both the federal and state governments aggressively pursue property forfeitures.

Some critics have suggested that authorities are abusing that practice when they convert forfeited property into cash used to fund government operations.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal, cited what she called forfeitures that are "grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged."

At the same time, Roberts noted that forfeiture of property used in the commission of a crime is a long-standing and legitimate practice.

"You can see how that makes a lot of sense," he said.

It remains to be seen how far the court will go in its ruling. As a general practice, the high court issues narrow rulings that decide no more than required.

If that's the case here, it will extend the excessive-fines protection to the states and leave Indiana to deal with Timbs' vehicle. Then, as related issues pop up in the aftermath of this decision, it will address them.

It has been six years since Timbs bought his car with money from a $70,000 inheritance after his father's death. The Land Rover, obviously, is not the vehicle it was then, even though both Timbs and the SUV are about to make legal history.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.