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Unanimous Supreme Court decision limits states’ ability to seize personal property

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to limit civil forfeiture laws allowing law enforcement to seize property from those suspected of committing a crime. In the unanimous decision, the high court sided with a low-level drug offender who argued that the seizure of his $42,000 Land Rover by law enforcement was an excessive fine. Amna Nawaz talks to the National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A unanimous decision today from the U.S. Supreme Court today limits the ability of states to seize private property and impose excessive fines.

    The decision came from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was back on the bench for the second time since undergoing cancer surgery in December.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The case began when an Indiana man pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin. The police later claimed his Land Rover had been used to transport drugs and seized the $42,000 car, something a lower court said was disproportionate to the gravity of his offense.

    To help explain the decision, I'm joined, as always, by Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal."

    We have talked about a number of cases before. Every time the Supreme Court considers one of these cases, there is a central question, a central issue. What was it here?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Right.

    The justices were asked whether the ban against excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment applies to the states. Does it protect us from state action that is excessive in fines or forfeiture?

    And the court said today, in an opinion, a unanimous opinion, Amna, by Justice Ginsburg, and a short one as well, nine pages, that that excessive fines ban does protect us against state action.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And so what do we know about the impact of a decision like this? There's obviously a lot of background that feeds into this. I know Justice Thomas actually cited some reporting around the issue in his decision. What is the impact of a decision like this?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, there have been a number of complaints or allegations by citizens and also news reports that some police departments have used forfeiture and fines in an abusive way or in a way that sometimes funds certain activities that they want to do without any real connection to a crime.

    And so what the court did today is going to do two things, basically. It's going to make police departments probably more cautious in how they use fines and forfeitures, and it also gives all of us a basis to challenge those forfeitures or fines if we think they are excessive.

    And Justice Ginsburg also pointed out in her opinion that excessive fines and forfeitures can also undermine our other rights. She noted, in particular, that if they're used in the wrong way, they can chill speech, for example, and they can be used as retaliation. And there have been allegations that they have been used in that way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Marcia, we should note this isn't the first time they have taken protections articulated in the Bill of Rights that are meant to protect federal — from federal action and extended them to states and local governments.

    Could we see that kind of thing happening again?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Probably.

    There are — believe it or not, there are still two amendments that have not been applied to the states. The Fifth Amendment's right to an indictment by a grand jury and the Seventh Amendment jury trial right in civil lawsuits haven't been applied.

    Besides today's action, the most recent time the court applied part of the Bill of — or an amendment of the Bill of Rights to the states was in 2010, when it applied the Second Amendment, the right of individuals to have a gun in the home for self-defense, to the states.

    So you're absolutely right, Amna. Remember that, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, it was to protect us against federal action. And the court over a period of years through what it calls incorporation has applied the Bill of Rights to the states through our 14th Amendment due process clause.

    So, wait and see. As the issue comes before the court, we will see what the court does with what is still remaining in the Bill of Rights.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Marcia Coyle, good to talk to you, as always.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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