After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case of Tyson Timbs, a man arrested over a drug-related offense, many news outlets celebrated the ruling as a victory against civil asset forfeiture. But while the unanimous decision does uphold that excessive fines are prohibited under the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it does not serve a deadly blow to the practice known as highway robbery.
If anything, this story is but a smokescreen, keeping people from discussing the real problem with the civil asset forfeiture law.
In Timbs’ case, the state tried to keep his $42,000 Land Rover SUV, which he had purchased with money acquired legally, by claiming he had used the car to transport $400 worth of heroin. But while he pleaded guilty to drug charges, an Indiana trial court sentenced him to jail time and a $1,200 fine. The car was obviously not part of the deal, as it had never been used in a crime.
After a trial court found that the car, whose value is more than four times as much as the maximum amount the court could have legally fined Timbs for, should not remain with the state, the case was taken to the Supreme Court. There, the highest court of the land, and one that remains as politicized and powerful as ever, ruled that keeping the car would amount to an excessive fine related to a crime conviction. Not once did the court look at cases involving government-sponsored theft of property belonging to perfectly innocent people.
As clearly stated by Alabama District Attorneys Association’s chief, Barry Matson, the SCOTUS decision does not impact the state’s laws regarding highway robbery.
The Only Solution: Abolish Civil Asset Forfeiture
While the Yellowhammer State’s law states that “criminal sanctions are required to be proportional to the underlying criminal activity under the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment,” it does not protect people whose property is taken without a conviction. One notorious case involves Jamey Vibbert, a car dealer the state accused of money laundering in a drug case in 2015.
While he was found innocent, the state kept the two cars he had sold the alleged drug dealer plus $25,000 agents stole from him. To get his money back, he had to face Alabama’s civil forfeiture proceedings first to prove his innocence. In the end, he may have secured half of his cash, but the other half was quickly gone thanks to his attorney’s fees.
As you can see, the case reviewed by SCOTUS and its ruling will, in no way, help people like Vibbert.
Law enforcement agencies know how to use civil asset forfeiture laws, being careful enough to take the property but to never convict the property owner of any crime. And because many of the victims become stuck with having to prove their innocence before getting their property back, some give up fighting back simply because they cannot afford to take the case to court.
All in all, the hype around the Timbs v. Indiana decision may have helped to create a buzz around civil asset forfeiture. However, it did not help Fourth Amendment advocates. But most importantly, this case did nothing for the poor victims of this travesty, which is backed by state and federal laws and is often used to generate wealth to local law enforcement agencies drunk on power.
There’s never been a better time to push your state lawmakers to bring government-backed theft to an end.