Supreme Court clamps down on 'excessive fines' by states

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled unanimously that states must adhere to the Constitution's ban on excessive fines, a decision that will likely limit the ability of states to impose certain fees and seize property.

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Eighth Amendment guards against abuses of the government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority, and that it extends to fines.

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“This safeguard, we hold, is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘deep roots in our history and tradition,’” she said, quoting Supreme Court precedent.

Ginsburg, who returned to the bench for oral arguments Tuesday for the first time since undergoing surgery in December, was joined in the ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Susan Collins raises M in second quarter fundraising, surpassing 2014 reelection bid The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic infighting threatens 2020 unity MORE. Justice Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

The case centered on Tyson Timbs, who pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. When Timbs was arrested, police seized the Land Rover he had purchased, for $42,000, from an insurance policy he received when his father died.

The state then brought a  civil forfeiture suit against Timbs for his vehicle because it had been used to transport heroin. The trial court denied the state’s forfeiture request.

Since Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine he can be charged for the drug conviction, the court said the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment.

The Indiana Supreme Court ultimately reversed that ruling, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions.

The high court vacated that ruling Wednesday.