Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared on the bench Wednesday for the first time since undergoing surgery in December to remove cancerous growths from her lungs, and she wasted no time in getting back down to business.
The high court issued a unanimous ruling on Wednesday — one written by Ginsburg herself and read aloud to the packed courthouse — that declared that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was applicable to states that levy excessive fines against and seize the personal property of criminal defendants.
Drug dealer’s vehicle seized
The U.K.’s Daily Mail reported that Ginsburg’s opinion was on a case known as Timbs v. Indiana in which a drug dealer named Tyson Timbs suffered the seizure of his $40,000 Land Rover SUV after being arrested for possession of about $400 worth of heroin.
Timbs said the vehicle was originally purchased with life insurance money he received after his father died.
Timbs pleaded guilty to the drug charge and received no prison sentence, but the police still claimed the SUV as their own property.
A judge had ruled that the state’s seizure of the vehicle was excessive and disproportionate to Timbs’ crime in that he had faced a maximum fine of only $10,000, only a quarter of what the seized vehicle was worth.
The case had significant implications for the growing practice of states levying excessive fines and seizing personal property from criminal suspects, and it drew quite a bit of national attention due to the fact that the high court had never before ruled on whether the Eighth Amendment applied to the states, not just the federal government.
In Ginsburg’s opinion, since the states were using the seized property and excessive fines as a source of revenue, the employment of such fines and seizures was “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”
In essence, the unanimous decision of the court centered on the 14th Amendment, specifically the clause that asserts that “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
The libertarian-leaning law firm Institute for Justice represented Timbs in the case, and an attorney for the firm who worked on the case, Sam Gedge, praised the ruling.
“The decision is an important first step for curtailing the potential for abuse that we see in civil forfeiture nationwide,” Gedge said.
Thomas concurs separately
Though the ruling was unanimous in Timbs’ favor, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Neil Gorsuch, wrote a separate concurring opinion that detailed how they reached the same conclusion via an alternative path through the 14th Amendment.
Specifically, Thomas noted that he would have based his decision on the clause that prohibits states from creating or enforcing “any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
All in all, this was a good ruling that will limit the ability of states to levy excessive fines or seize personal property of criminal suspects valued above a reasonable and justifiable punishment.