Florida criminal defendants facing excessive penalties or seized property can thank Indiana resident Tyson Timbs for relief via the US Supreme Court.

Tyson Timbs struggled with drug addiction. A painkiller prescription had escalated to heroin abuse.  In an unfortunate turn he was arrested selling heroin to undercover officers to fund his addiction. Timbs pled guilty to one count of drug dealing, which led to house arrest, then probation, and $1,200 in related fees.

Importantly before his arrest, Timbs received more than $70,000 in life-insurance proceeds when his father died that he used to purchase a new car, a Range Rover.

The State filed a “civil forfeiture” lawsuit to take title to the Land Rover then worth $40,000.  But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Timbs’ car would be “grossly disproportional” to his offense that carried a maximum $10,000 fine —for which Timbs had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed.  In yet another unfortunate turn, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states. Until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, the Indiana Supreme Court said, “we will not impose federal obligations on the State that the federal government itself has not mandated.”

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution states:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

On February 20th, 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court removed any doubt that the Excessive Fines Clause applies fully to Indiana and every other state via the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  The Indiana Supreme Court had gotten it wrong, and US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg made sure to let them know:

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies, as the Stuarts’ critics learned several centuries ago. Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a State money.’ This concern is scarcely hypothetical.”

Within this unanimous decision the US Supreme Court made it clear that civil forfeitures out of balance with what typically would be imposed under a criminal statute are prohibited.  This includes asset forfeiture, financial penalties, seizing property, cash, and cars – what is otherwise known as “policing for profit.” While the US Supreme Court made it clear that the Excessive Fines Clause applies to the States, it did not go so far as to determine whether or not Timbs’ case itself was excessive.  That matter will be passed back to the State Courts of Indiana.

Examples cited in Amicus Curiae (or “friend-of-the-court”) briefs by the ACLU stated that in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees, and forfeitures.  Examples cited included a $100 red light ticket in California that carries an additional $390 in fees. Also cited was New Jersey’s $1000 public defender fee imposed on the indigent for a $100 possession of marijuana charge.

Though not cited in the US Supreme Court case, this decision could call into question Florida’s $5000.00 civil fine potentially imposed on those charged with a second-degree misdemeanor prostitution charge that carries a $500 criminal fine.

As well, asset seizures and forfeitures could be called into question in Florida given Timbs vs. United States.  For example, defendants in Pinellas County that have been charged with felony Fleeing and Eluding have regularly had their vehicles seized by law enforcement.  Oftentimes, these cases are reduced to a misdemeanor offense carrying a maximum $1000 criminal penalty – completely out of balance with the seizure of a vehicle that is typically worth several times more than the criminal penalty.

If you are arrested in Pinellas County or anywhere in the Tampa Bay Area and have experienced an excessive fine or asset seizure, call the Morris Law Firm at 727-388-4736, Option 1 for New Clients for an immediate consultation on your defense case strategy.