The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a win Wednesday to a former heroin addict who argued that Indiana's seizure of his $42,000 Land Rover amounted to an excessive fine for a drug conviction.
In a unanimous ruling, the justices for the first time incorporated the 8th Amendment's protection against excessive fines to the states. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delivered the court's opinion, wrote that the safeguard is "fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty."
Ginsburg returned to the court Friday after nearly two months working from home during recovery from December cancer surgery. On Tuesday, she appeared on the bench for the first time since early December.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch did not sign onto Ginsburg's opinion, although each agreed with the majority's conclusion. The two conservatives would have taken a different legal route to get there, they wrote.
Wednesday's opinion marks an important extension of the top court's application of Bill of Rights protections to the states.
Most of the Bill of Rights was incorporated decades ago. Even other provisions of the 8th Amendment have been held to apply to the states before, such as its protections against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.
But the incorporation of the amendment's excessive fines clause marks a particularly notable development at a time when many municipalities are relying on fines and fees as a growing source of revenue, causing consternation among civil rights groups who say the penalties disproportionately hurt minorities and the poor.
The case, which the justices heard in November, was brought by Tyson Timbs, who pleaded guilty to selling drugs to undercover police officers in Indiana and was later sentenced to a year of home confinement, five years of probation, and about $1,000 in fines and other fees.
The state also took Timbs' Land Rover, valued at about quadruple the maximum monetary fine amount permitted for his drug conviction. Timbs, who has since gone through recovery, used the car to shuttle heroin into the state.
A trial court and an Indiana appeals court both found the seizure unlawful on the grounds that it was disproportionate to the offense. But those judgments were reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court, which reasoned that the 8th Amendment's excessive fines clause only barred action by the federal government, not the states.
The justices have applied, or incorporated, most of the Constitution's prohibitions on federal actions to the states in recent decades, but had never gotten around to the excessive fines clause until now. The last time the court incorporated a Bill of Rights protection was in 2010, when it incorporated the 2nd Amendment's prohibition of certain gun control laws.
Ginsburg delivered a staunch defense of the prohibition against excessive fines, tracing the lineage of the protection back to the Magna Carta to the current day.
She wrote that protection against excessive fines has been a "constant shield" and argued that high tolls can be used to undermine other liberties, to "chill the speech of political enemies," and as a form of retribution. Citing a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg wrote that the court's concerns were "scarcely hypothetical."
In its brief, the ACLU argued that the "explosion of fines, fees, and forfeitures has buried people under mountains of accumulating debt."
The group wrote that the fines can "lead to a host of collateral harms — wage garnishment, loss of employment and housing, poor credit ratings, driver's license suspension, incarceration, prohibitions on the right to vote, and even family separation."
Gorsuch and Thomas, who did not sign onto Ginsburg's opinion, each wrote separate concurrences agreeing with the majority's conclusion. The two conservatives would have used a different mechanism to incorporate the 8th Amendment, they wrote, relying on the 14th Amendment's privileges and immunities clause, rather than its due process clause, as Ginsburg and the rest of the court did.
The court's ruling was largely expected following November arguments in the case. Indiana's solicitor general, Thomas Fisher, faced a battering from a slate of the justices during his oral argument that month.
"Most of the incorporation cases took place in, like, the 1940s," Gorsuch told him at the time. "And here we are in 2018 still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, general."