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Ex-heroin addict goes all the way to the Supreme Court to get back his confiscated Land Rover

Indiana resident Tyson Timbs, who was convicted of selling drugs, says the Eight Amendment's ban on excessive fines should apply.
Tyson Timbs
Tyson Timbs holds a photo of his vehicle seized after a drug arrest.Institute for Justice

WASHINGTON — When Tyson Timbs was convicted of selling heroin to undercover police officers in Indiana, he was sentenced to a year of home detention and five years of probation. But the state also took away his expensive car.

On Wednesday, he'll urge the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the same provision of the U.S. Constitution that prevents the federal government from imposing excessive fines also applies to the states.

One of the central reasons for adopting the Constitution was to restrict the power of the federal government. For that reason, though it may seem surprising, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government when it was enacted.

Over time, the Supreme Court has ruled case-by-case that most of those protections also apply to the states. The most recent example came in 2010 when the court said the Second Amendment restricts state gun control efforts as well as federal ones.

Even so, the court has yet to apply a few remaining provisions to the states, and the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines is one of them. The amendment's other two restrictions, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and banning excessive bail, have been declared to restrict state authority as well.

Both sides in Wednesday's case agree on the facts: Timbs became addicted to an opioid prescription for persistent foot pain. When that supply ran out, he turned to drug dealers and eventually to heroin. To pay for his addiction, he began dealing heroin and was arrested after he twice sold to undercover police officers.

The police said he used his car to facilitate the drug deals — a $42,000 Land Rover that he bought with money he received from his father's life insurance policy — and the state instituted a forfeiture lawsuit to take it away from him.

Timbs fought to keep the vehicle, and the judge said the punishment of losing his car would be "grossly disproportionate" to the seriousness of his offense, given that the value of the Land Rover was more than four times the maximum fine for the drug conviction. But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines doesn't apply to the states.

The lawyers for Timbs say it should apply, for the same reasons the Supreme Court has cited in applying other constitutional provisions to the states — that the right is a fundamental liberty interest and is deeply rooted in the nation's history and traditions.

Indiana argues in response that even if the ban on excessive fines applies to the states, the restriction should involve only personal fines that a person has to pay, not on the seizure of property used to commit a crime.

Civil liberties groups, led by the ACLU, urge the court to rule for Timbs. They say the past 30 years have bought an unprecedented rise in fines, fees and forfeitures "driven by a quest to generate revenue and to fund state and local justice systems."

The penalties have hit low-income people especially hard, often causing them to lose their jobs and their homes, the groups say.

After hearing courtroom argument on Wednesday, the court will issue its decision by the end of the term in late June.