Supreme Court Addresses Forfeitures

The U.S. Supreme Court has given hope to citizens who have had valuable personal property seized in connection with relatively minor criminal offenses. This constitutes valuable legal precedent for citizens of Minnesota and Wisconsin who have had their vehicles seized in connection with DWI and drug offenses.

In Timbs v. State, _586 U.S. ____ (2019), police had seized an Indiana citizen's $40,000 Land Rover when they arrested him for selling $400 worth of illicit drugs. When he was able to convince the Indiana trial court that he should be able to get his vehicle back, the Indiana prosecutor was able to get the case approved for review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noted that the government imposes fines "out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence" because the fines can be a source of revenue for the government. The Supreme Court decided that the forfeiture in Timbs was excessive, basing its decision on the 14th Amendment prohibition against any state "depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

This decision is an important precedent for criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere who routinely see abuse of civil forfeiture proceedings beyond what actually constitutes an appropriate penalty for a crime. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred separately, indicating that he would have used the 14th Amendment's clause that forbids states from enacting or enforcing "any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

Paul E. Overson