SCOTUS Decision Boosts Criminal Justice Reform

*The Breakdown is The North Star’s daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: On February 20, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that states and local governments cannot seize property or impose excessive fines through civil asset forfeiture. The practice allowed state and local law enforcement to take possessions such as cash, cars, real estate, or other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity without providing evidence or filing official charges.

The ruling in Timbs v Indiana comes after Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover cops and conspiracy to commit theft in 2013. An Indiana trial court sentenced Timbs to one year of house arrest, five years of probation, and $1,203 in fines. Police also confiscated Timbs’ Land Rover—which had been purchased for $42,000 with money from his father’s life insurance policy—claiming it had been used to deliver the drug. A lower court ruled the seizure “grossly disproportionate,”citing a $10,000 maximum fine for the drug conviction. The ruling was overturned by Indiana’s Supreme Court.

In Wednesday’s opinion, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.” She warned, “They can be used… to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.” Ginsburg also noted that the Excessive Fines Clause has been prone to abuse and misused as a source of revenue. Historical Context: The Excessive Fines Clause can trace its origins to the Magna Carta of 1215, which protected against fines “so large as to deprive [an offender] of his livelihood.” By 1688, it provided that “excessive Bail ought not to be required, nor excessive Fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual Punishments inflicted.” This same language was later adopted by the Founding Fathers and incorporated into the Bill of Rights as a way to shield citizens from undue federal action.

Despite this, abuses of power and inequality continued. After the Civil War, “Southern States enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed [enslaved people] and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy,” according to the opinion. These not only levied fines for “vagrancy” but sought to “replicate, as much as possible, a system of involuntary servitude.”

Beneath the Surface: “Imposing monetary penalties that bury people under mountains of accumulating debt has devastating consequences on individuals, families, and entire communities, particularly low-income communities of color,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, adding that it was thrilled with the ruling. “The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protects people from state and local authorities’ abusive reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures to raise revenue and pay for the legal system.” In a statement posted to Twitter, the NAACP cheered the ruling as “a huge victory for criminal justice reform."

What’s Next: The ruling, seen as a liberal decision for an increasingly conservative court, now extends Eighth Amendment protections to states, and in doing so, strengthens property rights while reducing so-called "policing for profit." The decision will, according to Vox, potentially make it easier to fight civil forfeiture “in court, or perhaps deter police from the seizures to begin with.” Since 2005, the Court has issued a number of decisions in favor of criminal reform, including overturning extreme sentences for juvenile offenders.

About the Author

Ariana Rosas is an editorial assistant for The North Star. She is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn. She has a background in social policy and is interested in social justice, human rights, and immigration.