Supreme Court Formally Incorporates Long-Standing Prohibition Against Excessive Fines

2019-02-27 | , AKC Government Relations Department

On Wednesday, February 20, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Indiana Supreme Court and held that Eighth Amendment safeguards against excessive fines are “fundamental to the American scheme of ordered liberty, with deep roots in our history and tradition” and are therefore “incorporated” at the state level via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

This decision in Timbs v Indiana may be important to dog owners and relevant to cases of civil asset forfeiture related to the seizure of dogs because the value of animals (or other property) seized in local and state actions can be significantly greater than the maximum penalty allowed for a particular offense and thus construed as an excessive penalty in conflict with the Eighth Amendment.   

Since the opinion was issued earlier this week, several inquiries have been made of AKC Government Relations about the applicability of the decision to the growing number of state laws that allow seizure of animals in certain types of criminal and civil cases. Wednesday’s holding is certainly authoritative, and the facts of a case may be reasonably construed to provide that forfeiture values are—for example, more than four times the statutory maximum allowable fine, as were at issue in the Timbs case—, excessive. 

On a cautionary note, however, the Timbs holding does not provide explicit guidance for legislatures to set when writing laws (much less for courts to use when interpreting laws) as limits for fines or seizures.  Instead, the Court has simply established the principle that the long-standing prohibition against excessive fines is incorporated against the states.  Additional efforts will likely be necessary to incorporate this Constitutional principle into legislative guidance.

AKC Government Relations will continue its efforts to promote and advocate for the enactment of fair laws that protect the rights of responsible owners and breeders and prevent unreasonable seizure and forfeiture of animals, while also supporting laws that hold those proven to have cruelly treated animals appropriately responsible. 

More Background on Timbs v. Indiana

Since its formal adoption as part of the Bill of Rights in 1792, the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution has provided, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”   This was intended as a protection against the federal government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority.  

After the Civil War and abolishment of slavery over seven decades later, a hard-Constitutional fact remained: while newly-freed people were protected by the federal Bill of Rights, many state constitutions did not necessarily include similar protections.  Through its Due Process Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1868, became the legal vehicle by which the Supreme Court subsequently held that most provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to the states too.  This doctrine is known as incorporation. 

It was not until recently, however, in Timbs v. Indiana, that the Supreme Court explicitly sought to address the issue of whether the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment was an incorporated protection applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  

In this case, Mr. Timbs pleaded guilty in an Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance.  At the time of his arrest, the police seized his vehicle worth $42,000 that Mr. Timbs had paid for with insurance proceeds following his father’s death.  Indiana pursued a civil forfeiture case against Mr. Timbs for his vehicle, but a trial court refused, saying that the value of the vehicle was grossly disproportionate (at more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction) and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  The case was reaffirmed at the appellate level, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, arguing that the Eighth Amendment only applied to federal action and was not applicable to the states.  The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which heard the case in 2018.  Justice Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the majority of the unanimous Court.  Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion (arguing that the proper protections against excessive fines is found in the Privileges and Immunities Clause, not the Due Process Clause, of the Fourteen Amendment), and Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment (arguing that the protection is a fundamental privilege of American citizenship).   

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