WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that states may not impose excessive fines, extending a bedrock constitutional protection but potentially jeopardizing asset-forfeiture programs that help fund police operations with property seized from criminal suspects.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, warning that tyrants have used such fines to punish or silence political enemies.
More recently, the proliferation of fines has alarmed criminal-justice advocates, who contend they fall disproportionately on the poor and distort police priorities.
An array of organizations filed briefs backing the constitutional argument for curbing excessive fines, from the liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for Moral Law on the right.
“Today’s ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’—where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property then sell it, and keep the profits to fund their departments,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice who successfully argued the case in November.
Law-enforcement officials around the U.S. were studying the ruling to understand how it might affect them—and what might be considered as excessive when it comes to fines or forfeiture. In general, they defended the practice of asset forfeiture as a way to strike a blow at criminals.
“We’re trying to deter folks from using those funds to propagate their criminal activity,” said Mike Sena, executive director of the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a governmental organization that assists agencies to target drug trafficking. “Especially with narcotics dealers, you can always get more heroin and more cocaine, but you can’t print more money.”
In California, state law enforcement agencies seized assets worth $42 million in 2017, the most recent data available, according to a state Department of Justice report.
Wednesday’s case came from Indiana, where a man named Tyson Timbs was arrested in 2013 after selling four grams of heroin for $385 to an undercover detective. After a plea bargain, Mr. Timbs was sentenced to a year of home detention followed by five years probation, and assessed $1,200 in fees. But the state also seized his $42,000 Land Rover, bought with proceeds from an inheritance, which was worth more than four times the maximum fine for the offense.
In Indiana, state and local police and prosecutors received at least $6.3 million from criminal suspects through asset-forfeitures in the 2017 fiscal year, along with 336 vehicles, 29 firearms and five parcels of real estate, according to the Indiana Council of Prosecuting Attorneys. Another $13,600 was awarded to a state school fund.
State trial and appellate judges blocked the Land Rover’s forfeiture under the Eighth Amendment, which in addition to forbidding cruel and unusual punishments and excessive bail forbids excessive fines. But the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated the seizure, concluding that the limit on fines applied only to the federal government and not the states.
That initially was so after the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, but the U.S. Supreme Court long has held that the 14th Amendment, adopted following the Civil War to prevent states from infringing on individual rights, extended nearly all its protections to all levels of government.
At November’s arguments, justices found the state supreme court’s conclusion mystifying, and in Wednesday’s decision confirmed that the Eighth Amendment contained no exceptions.
“The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. The amendment’s framers, she wrote, were appalled by the Black Codes, the laws adopted by former Confederate states to reduce recently freed African-Americans to near-slavery, including huge fines for trivial offenses whose nonpayment led to forced labor.
Echoes of such systems exist today, critics have said, when poor people who run afoul of the law are ensnared in debts and fees to the justice system, hobbling them through life. A 2015 Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., police department, triggered by the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, found that the city treasury relied on fines and other costs collected by law enforcement, a burden falling disproportionately on African-Americans.
“Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the report found.
The Eighth Amendment always has bound the federal government. In 1993, the Supreme Court unanimously held the limit on fines applied when the government, at least partly to punish misconduct, filed civil actions to forfeit property of criminal suspects.
Mr. Timbs said Wednesday that the loss of his Land Rover had been a significant blow. “If they’re trying to rehabilitate and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” he said. Mr. Timbs, 37 years old, works as a machinist in Marion, Ind., and has stayed clean, the Institute for Justice said.
“We appreciate the court’s attention to the important issues raised in this case,” said Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill. “Although we argued for a different outcome, we respect the court’s decision.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, who filed a friend of the court brief for state and local government associations backing Indiana, said the justices focused on the abstract constitutional plane rather than practical issues in the Timbs case.
“We find it particularly unfortunate because forfeiture by the states offers an appealing alternative to incarceration” of drug offenders and other criminals, he said. “Because the court’s decision leaves so much unresolved, there will now be a tidal wave of litigation to determine when forfeiture is limited by the Eighth Amendment.”
Mr. Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and former federal prosecutor, agreed that “there’s more than a little something to the proposition that states shouldn’t be permitted to impose ‘excessive fines.’” But regarding Mr. Timbs, “I think most people would think one year for this [crime] is a pretty modest approach” to punishment, even when paired with seizing his Land Rover.
Wednesday’s decision left many questions unanswered, including the degree to which fines, forfeitures and fees should be considered legally indistinguishable and how to decide when a fine becomes excessive. The practical impact will take years to see, as defendants and others invoke the decision to challenge different penalties and costs.
“Is it excessive for the offense? Or excessive for the individual?” said Lisa Foster, a former California state judge and co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy group which filed a brief backing Mr. Timbs. “What may be excessive for me may be a different amount for a minimum-wage worker and different for Bill Gates.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the Ginsburg opinion; Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the result but wrote a separate opinion with a different legal theory.
—Zusha Elinson contributed to this article.