U.S. Supreme Court Extends Constitutional Prohibition Against Excessive Fines to States

supreme court 8th amendment forfeiture cannabis

The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on Wednesday in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, incorporating the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause against the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As we have written about, 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, and the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed and concluded that because states are not subject to the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture was not unconstitutional. In a sweeping decision authored by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the United States Supreme Court flatly rejected that contention.

The decision is an expansion of the federal Constitution to apply against state and local governments, and it means that all state and local asset forfeiture regimes could be subject to challenge insofar as they allow for forfeitures that are “excessive” under the Eighth Amendment. That includes forfeitures related to cannabis activity. According to the decision,

… the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming. Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty’ and ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’

The decision is being hailed as a victory for criminal justice reform. It strengthens property rights and could limit controversial police seizures such as those done through civil forfeiture nationwide. The 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. This is great news for the cannabis industry, and will provide additional legal support for our clients who have had their property seized or threatened to be seized by state and local governments.

For more background on this issue, check out the following: