We have handled a number of excessive fines cases on behalf of clients who’ve had their property seized, or threatened to be seized by the government. For some background on this, see our blog posts here and here.
The United States Constitution provides that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. U.S. Const., Amdt. 8. The Excessive Fines Clause “limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, ‘as punishment for some offense.’” Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 609-10 (1993). That constitutional protection applies in cannabis cases, just like everywhere else.
On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Timbs v. Indiana regarding whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case involves the forfeiture of petitioner’s land rover as punishment for selling heroin. The Indiana Court of Appeal held that the forfeiture of the land rover was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed and concluded that because states are not subject to the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture was not unconstitutional.
The predicted outcome is that the United States Supreme Court will apply the Excessive Fines Clause against the states. The Timbs decision will have nationwide impacts for those accused of drug crimes and other offenses, and will be an important check on the government’s power to interfere with private property. That would be great news for the cannabis industry.
As stated in the petitioner’s opening brief:
“The right to be free from excessive fines is fundamental and applies to the States. The power to fine is—and has always been—a formidable one. And unlike every other form of punishment, fines and forfeitures are a source of revenue for the government, making them uniquely prone to abuse. The accompanying risk to life, liberty, and property is very real. “[I]n a free government,” after all, “almost all other rights would become utterly worthless, if the government possessed an uncontrollable power over the private fortune of every citizen.” 3 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 1784, 661 (1833).”
It’s a compelling argument, and you can read the full brief here.
We will be monitoring this case and will provide an update once the decision is published.