Latest U.S. Supreme Court Decision Limits Civil Asset Forfeiture
In January 2013, Tyson Timbs purchased a Land Rover valued at approximately $42,000 using money he received from his father’s life insurance policy. Over the next four months, Timbs used the Land Rover to make multiple trips throughout Indiana to transport and sell heroin. Timbs became the subject of an undercover investigation and was arrested in May 2013. Timbs was prosecuted for felony drug dealing and conspiracy to commit theft. Timbs was sentenced to six years in prison, five of which was to be suspended on probation. Timbs was also ordered to pay fines, fees, and costs totaling approximately $1,200.
Yet, Timbs case didn’t end there. The state of Indiana sought to forfeit Timbs’ Land Rover. The Indiana trial court denied the forfeiture saying that the seizure would violate the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines. The trial court characterized the forfeiture attempt as grossly disproportional to the seriousness of the offense. The trial court noted that the maximum fine Timbs could have been ordered to pay was $10,000, and that the Land Rover was worth more than four times that amount.
The state of Indiana appealed the denial of the forfeiture and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed holding that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines did not apply to state governments. The Indiana Supreme Court held that the state of Indiana had proven its right to forfeit the Land Rover under Indiana state law. The matter was later appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which in a unanimous 9-0 decision in favor of Timbs, reversed the Indiana Supreme Court and ruled that Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines does apply to state governments.
What is Civil Forfeiture?
Under civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement may seize a person’s property – often times money – but in the case of Timbs, an automobile, that was used in or related to criminal activity. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, a court may order a person to forfeit any property involved in the offense or any property that is traceable to the other property involved in the offense.
For example: assume that Charlie sales marijuana, and that over the course of his sales, he earns $15,000. The government could seize the $15,000 because the money was the result of criminal activity (the drug sales).
Now assume that Charlie used the $15,000 to purchase a new car. Because the car was purchased with money earned from illegal drug sales, the government could also force Charlie to forfeit his new car.
Even in cases like Timbs’ where the property (the car) was not purchased with money from criminal activity but was used in or is traceable to the commission of criminal activity (in Timbs’ case for example, the transportation of illegal drugs), the car or other property may be seized and forfeited.
How does the Supreme Court’s Decision on Excessive Fines Effect Civil Forfeitures?
The Supreme Court’s decision is important for two reasons. One, it means that as a matter of law, all states are prohibited from imposing excessive fines against any defendant, for any crime, regardless of whether a forfeiture is at issue.
Secondly, this decision means that in cases involving civil forfeitures, states, like Nevada, now have to take into account the value of the property being seized in relation to the seriousness of the crime. If the value of the forfeiture is unreasonable in light of the potential criminal penalties, there is now a good argument for stopping the forfeiture.
Civil Forfeitures are not Limited to Criminal Activity
Although civil forfeiture most commonly comes on the heels of, or in conjunction with, a criminal prosecution, it is not uncommon for people traveling to or visiting Las Vegas to become involved with a civil forfeiture without ever being arrested or charged with a crime.
Many people traveling to Las Vegas encounter United States Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) at the Las Vegas airport (McCarran International Airport). Many times, USCBP, TSA, or other government officials will take cash money from travelers without explanation. In these cases, travelers are seized of their cash, given a receipt that contains little, if any, information, and sent on their way without any idea of why their money was taken, or how they can get it back.
If the government cannot show how your money was traceable to criminal activity, then the government does not have any legal right to keep your money. However, the government does not make this process easy to understand. The timing of notices, and your right to file a petition or claim for the return of your money is limited. If you have had money seized from you by a government agency, you should contact an experienced civil forfeiture attorney right away.
If you have had property seized by a government agency, call The Wright Law Group, P.C. Our attorneys understand the complex nature of civil forfeiture law and we stand ready to fight for you and your property. Do not let the government take your money (or other property) without a fight, especially if you have not been charged with a crime. Call the lawyers at The Wright Law Group, P.C. today. Our lawyers have more than two decades of criminal defense experience and we can help you protect your rights and your property. Call us now at (702) 405-0001 to arrange a consultation.