The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The “excessive fines” clause of that Amendment protects against “grossly disproportional” fines. Think small crime, huge fine. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court held that civil asset forfeiture cases brought by the federal government were quasi-punitive and were therefore subject to the 8th Amendment’s excessive fines clause. Since then, when a federal court forfeits property gained or used in crime, that decision is subject to a “gross disproportionality” review. Think small federal crime, huge federal forfeiture of property. Thus, the 8th Amendment requires a balancing of community and individual interests.
Tyson Timbs was convicted on state theft and controlled substances charges. At his arrest, Indiana authorities seized his $42,000 Land Rover that had been purchased with his late father’s life insurance proceeds. The State of Indiana alleged that the Land Rover had facilitated [had made easier] committing the crimes. Property that facilitates crime is forfeitable both federally and in almost all states including Kansas.
The Indiana trial judge agreed that the Land Rover had facilitated Tyson’s crimes and that it was therefore forfeitable. However, the judge further held that because the value of the Land Rover was greater than the maximum $10,000.00 fine that could have been imposed in the parallel criminal case against Tyson, it would be unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment to forfeit the Land Rover in the civil forfeiture case. The Court of Appeals of Indiana agreed. But, the Indiana Supreme Court did not. The Indiana justices held that the 8th Amendment’s excessive fines clause has never applied to the states, and that the trial judge erred by looking to that clause. Tyson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Big Court agreed with Tyson that the excessive fines clause should apply to the states, and reversed the Indiana Supreme Court. “When ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights applied only to the Federal Government. The Constitutional Amendments adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War, however, fundamentally altered our country’s federal system.” Over the years, the Court has made applicable to the states through the 14th Amendment most of the rights contained in the first ten Amendments known as the Bill of Rights. In short, the right against excessive fines in federal courts is now a right in state courts.
The Big Court sent the case back to Indiana for it to determine if the forfeiture of a $42,000 Land Rover is grossly disproportional to the societal damage caused by the Land Rover when it made the serious crimes easier and more efficient to commit.
That said, the Timbs case will have little practical impact in Kansas civil forfeiture cases because Kansas has already codified into our state law those same excessive fines protections. In 1993, the Big Court had just held in Austin v. United States that the excessive fines clause applied in federal civil forfeitures. Because Kansas was at that same time reforming its civil asset forfeiture laws, our Legislature included in the 1994 state forfeiture reform act an excessive fines protection procedure. See K.S.A. 60-4106(c).