WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court left little doubt Wednesday that it would rule that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states, an outcome that could help an Indiana man recover the $40,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.
A decision in favor of 37-year-old Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, also could buttress efforts to limit the confiscation by local law enforcement of property belonging to someone suspected of a crime. Police and prosecutors often keep the proceeds.
Timbs was on hand at the high court for arguments that were largely a one-sided affair in which the main question appeared to be how broadly the state would lose.
The court has formally held that most of the Bill of Rights applies to states as well as the federal government, but it has not done so on the Eighth Amendment’s excessive-fines ban.
Justice Neil Gorsuch was incredulous that Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher was urging the justices to rule that states should not be held to the same standard.
“Here we are in 2018 still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, general,” Gorsuch said to Fisher, using the term for holding that constitutional provisions apply to the states.
Justice Stephen Breyer said under Fisher’s reading police could take the case of a driver caught going 5 mph (8 kph) above the speed limit.
“Anyone who speeds has to forfeit the Bugatti, Mercedes or special Ferrari, or even jalopy,” Breyer said.
It was unclear whether the justices also would rule to give Timbs his Land Rover back or allow Indiana courts to decide that issue. Some justices seemed willing to take that additional step.
“If we look at these forfeitures that are occurring today … many of them are grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
But Chief Justice John Roberts said the question of whether what happened to Timbs was excessive might be a closer call. Timbs drove his car to the place where he twice sold small amounts of heroin to undercover officers, and he carried the drugs in the car, Roberts said. Police have long been allowed to seize property in such situations.
“You will lose assets you used in the crime,” Roberts said. “You can see how that makes a lot of sense.”
Lawyer Wesley Hottot, representing Timbs, told the justices that in rural areas people drive places. He said the use of the Land Rover was incidental to the sale of the drugs.
The case has drawn interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation.
Timbs said his own view of the case has changed over time.
“At first it was about getting my truck back because I was mad, and I wanted my stuff back. Now it’s a lot different,” he said. “I was curious to see how often they did this to people. They do it a lot around here, and apparently it’s done all over the country.”
Timbs’ criminal sentence included no prison time, a year of house arrest and five years on probation.
In earlier cases applying parts of the Bill of Rights to the states, the court used the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to ensure the rights of newly freed slaves.
The court also has relied on that clause — “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law” — in cases that established a woman’s right to an abortion and knocked down state laws against interracial marriage and gay sex.
The story of how Timbs ended up in the Supreme Court began with steel-toed boots he bought for work in a truck factory. The boots hurt his feet, but he couldn’t immediately afford the insoles he was told to buy. A doctor wrote a prescription for hydrocodone. Before long, Timbs was hooked on heroin.
He tried several times to get clean but said he wasn’t ready. A more than $70,000 life insurance payout he received after his father’s death seemed a blessing, but it wasn’t, he said.
“A drug addict shouldn’t have a whole lot of money,” said Timbs, who used some of the money to buy the Land Rover.
Timbs hasn’t driven the car since his arrest in 2013. He lives with his aunt, and she allows him to use her 2012 Dodge Avenger, for which he said he is especially appreciative.
“But it’s definitely not a Land Rover,” Timbs said.
A decision in Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 v. Indiana, 17-1091, is expected by June.