In March of last year, I wrote about the dangers of civil forfeiture and how it violates the rights of those American citizens going through the criminal justice system, as it can easily be abused. To my delight, our government has finally done something about it. In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive bail or excessive fines, also applies to the states thanks to Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case surrounded the case of Tyson Timbs, a drug offender who was charged with selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover officers, fined $1200 and sentenced to five years. However, after paying his fine and bail, he was astounded to find that the police confiscated his $42,000 Land Rover under the charge that he used it to commit crimes probation (Liptak and Dewan, New York Times). To put this in perspective, the Eighth Amendment explicitly says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”, and yet, the police department seized Timbs’s property more than 35 times the value of his fine, which he paid. Timbs had paid his dues to society and had pleaded guilty to the crimes he committed, and yet, the officers in question violated his rights by taking property that was well beyond the purview of this case.
To say this was a step in the right direction is an understatement, as states have abused their policing powers to an ungodly extent. In 2013, Texas confiscated $3.5 million dollars’ worth of property from its populace, with or without a conviction. Worse yet, Texas can keep up to 90 percenr of forfeited property under its laws, making it easier for the government to police for profit, which harms the rights of citizens in their states and undermines the citizenry’s faith in the police. I wish I could say that Texas was an outlier, but that would be inaccurate, as 19 other states use the standards Texas used to achieve this insidious end (Silbia, Forbes). Although this ruling by the court will not stop the police from confiscating property without a conviction, it will inevitably contain the damage the police can do when they confiscate, since the forfeited property will have to be proportional to the crime one is accused of or has pleaded guilty to. With this case, it is my hope that we as a nation can strive to prevent the states from using their monetary woes to justify taking property from innocent citizens, as well as taking what is beyond their authority. The police are meant to protect their citizens, not make a cash cow out of them for the state. As this ruling goes into effect, we as a nation ought to do everything in our power to further limit the power of civil forfeiture. While the court has done a deed of good for the public, it needs to go further to prevent any and all seizures that lack a conviction by a court of law.