In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution limits the ability of state and local police to seize and keep cash, property, and other assets that may have been used to commit crimes, particularly when it’s used to enrich police departments.
Written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her first day back at the court, the decision cites the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines to place limits on civil asset forfeiture—a practice in which states and localities confiscate cash, cars, houses, and other assets believed to have been used in crimes. The practice has been decried by civil liberties organizations for years; police departments often keep the revenue from such seizures, and these forfeitures occur throughout the country even when no one has been charged or convicted of a crime.
As NPR reports, “the ruling effectively means states and local municipalities cannot use fines as a mechanism for raising revenue, something many local governments do.”
Data shows that civil asset forfeiture disproportionately affects vulnerable communities, particularly black Americans and low-income neighborhoods. In a series of reports, The Greenville News chronicled their findings after spending years poring through data on civil asset forfeitures in South Carolina. The state pocketed $17 million from those seizures between 2014-2016, and 65 percent of those targeted were black men. In more than half of the instances when police took cash, the amount was less than $1,000: enough to push someone into financial hardship, but not enough to incur legal fees to reclaim.
In Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that civil asset forfeiture was practiced similarly, with police seizing assets worth less than the cost of the legal fees it would require to reclaim the cash or property. Under state law, someone trying to reclaim seized assets needs to go to civil court to prove their property is lawful—even if they haven’t been charged with a crime.
In the case that went before the high court, an Indian man, Tyson Timbs was arrested for selling a small amount of heroin to undercover cops.
Timbs sold the heroin for $400. His $42,000 Land Rover ended up getting seized by the state of Indiana for the crime. The Supreme Court found the seizure “grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense,” as Ginsburg wrote.
“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties,” she added.
But does the ruling actually mean for the practice of civil assets forfeiture is finished? We asked Samuel Brooke, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, to break down the ruling, how it affects police departments—and the people who have had their property seized by the police—and what’s next for civil asset forfeiture.
The Root: Could you explain what the ruling means in terms of affecting states’ and local municipalities’ ability to use civil asset forfeiture and other such fines as a way to bring in money?
Samuel Brooke: The Supreme Court affirmed that fines may not be excessive, and noted that states are currently using excessive fines for improper purposes, including raising revenue.
It did not expressly address the issue of fines-for-raising-revenue in this case because it was not before it—rather, the court said that fines may not be excessive, and noted that there is good reason to be concerned that fines sometimes are excessive because of the perverse incentives that exist to use fines as revenue-generators.
I’d thus characterize it as the Supreme Court affirming fines cannot be excessive, and putting jurisdictions on notice that if they are using fines to generate revenue, they are likely to have a constitutional problem.
TR: How does this affect places like Alabama and South Carolina where we’ve seen police departments collect substantial revenue from civil asset forfeiture?
SB: Jurisdictions like Alabama should be concerned. SPLC and others have documented over and again how civil asset forfeiture is used to seize assets–homes, cars, cash–without any conviction, even after exonerations. And the burden is put on the victim of these abuses to go to court to get it back.
Today’s ruling does not itself put an end to that practice. It simply creates a means for lawyers to better contest those illegal civil asset forfeitures. But to the individual who cannot afford an attorney, they are in the same situation today they were in two days ago. Which is why we are pushing the legislature in Alabama to reform its civil-asset-forfeiture laws. We hope today’s decision will be a major wakeup call on why this is necessary.
If anyone calls himself a conservative and wants to make sure the government is not overreaching, he should not be comfortable with these abusive practices.
TR: How would the SCOTUS ruling be enforced?
SB: It will usually be enforced through individual cases challenging individual fines or forfeitures. But hopefully it will encourage legislators and policy-makers–including sheriffs and chiefs of police–to reform their practices.
TR: What are the limits of the ruling? What does it not protect against?
SB: While sweeping, the Court left many questions unanswered. It simply affirmed that a fine may not be excessive. But it left it to lower courts to figure out what that means in particular contexts.
This is typical of how our court system works. The Supreme Court will make a broad pronouncement, then allow lower courts to deal with the particulars, and no doubt we will in the future years see some more cases go back to the Supreme Court to further clarify the scope of what is meant by the excessive fines clause.
But all the problems that existed last week remain. Governments remain too dependent on fines and overpolicing to generate revenue, not to mention numerous other practices that perpetuates a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poor more severely—like suspending a driver’s license or jailing someone when they cannot afford not pay their fines.
Today’s decision is an important tool to help us mend these errors, and it is encouraging. But advocates and community members still need to hold their leaders accountable to ensure that the promise of a fair justice system is also a reality.