Supreme Court Limits Asset Forfeiture, But Defining 'Excessive' Is Tricky The Supreme Court ruled that seizing a $42,000 Land Rover was an "excessive fine" in a recent landmark decision on civil asset forfeiture. Future rulings will have to further define that term.

Defining What's Excessive In Police Property Seizures Remains Tricky

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Police can seize someone's property - cash or cars - even if they just suspect it's associated with a crime. And the property owner may not even be charged with anything. The practice is allowed under a powerful tool called civil asset forfeiture. It was revived in the 1980s. Activists on both the right and the left say forfeiture is routinely abused. And in February, the Supreme Court gave them a win. So far, though, there's little sign the ruling is preventing police from taking people's stuff. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When Tyson Timbs was caught selling about $200 worth of heroin, he pleaded guilty and served six months of home detention, followed by probation. He accepted that. What he didn't accept was that the police also seized his Land Rover.

TYSON TIMBS: I want my truck back. I've always wanted it back.

KASTE: He bought the $42,000 vehicle with insurance money. But the police kept it on the theory that he'd used it to transport small amounts of heroin.

TIMBS: I didn't feel like it was right. I wanted to try and do something about something because I thought it was kind of ridiculous that they could take my vehicle like that so easily.

KASTE: He fought the case for years, right up to the Supreme Court. And during oral arguments last fall, the justices seemed to agree that something is out of whack with forfeitures. Here's Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

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SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Many of them seem grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged.

KASTE: And Timbs won the case unanimously. But the ruling itself was pretty narrow. It simply says that the Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive fines applies to the states too. And the states already had that protection in their constitutions, says Lisa Soronen.

LISA SORONEN: So presumably, the case will have no real impact at all.

KASTE: Soronen's executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, which took Indiana's side in this case. Sure, she says, the court has now made it crystal clear that excessive fines are unconstitutional. But what's still not clear is what that means.

SORONEN: Timbs v. Indiana is like the skeleton. So now we know there's bones in the closet, right? But there's no meat on the bones. And the meat will be when the Supreme Court defines what excessive is. We're just not there yet.

KASTE: She expects this process will take years, just as it took the court years to define excessive force. But others think Timbs may have a quicker effect. In Georgia, a lawyer named Matthew Cavedon says it strengthened his hand when he challenged the county's seizure of his client's moped.

MATTHEW CAVEDON: This was actually his main mode of transportation.

KASTE: He was negotiating with the prosecutor over the moped around the time that the Timbs case was decided.

CAVEDON: Being able to bring in a part of the Bill of Rights and say that that prohibited this seizure, that mattered a lot.

KASTE: But the prosecutor denies that Timbs made the difference. Hall County assistant district attorney Wanda Vance says she gave the moped back because it simply wasn't worth her time anymore.

WANDA VANCE: I personally had spent, as a prosecutor, days working on this one asset forfeiture. So it just got to be - to where we made kind of a decision that it wasn't in the interest of justice anymore for us to continue.

KASTE: And that's an important detail here. It costs money for both sides to contest a forfeiture. This is civil law, so you don't get a free lawyer. And a lot of people just end up abandoning their stuff to the state. That means fewer forfeitures get challenged and fewer cases get to the high courts that might help to define what excessive means. Wesley Hottot is the lawyer on the Timbs case. He's with the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice. He says Timbs could take this case all the way to the Supreme Court only because the institute was willing to cover the cost - three-quarters of a million dollars is his guess.

WESLEY HOTTOT: It's hard for the law to develop in a way that favors property owners when the amount in controversy is going to be so much less than what it costs to litigate.

KASTE: Instead of waiting for the courts, he wants lawmakers to step in. And some of them are. In the Minnesota legislature this year, Representative John Lesch says the Timbs ruling has lent moral support to a bill limiting forfeiture, though he says some lawmakers in both parties are still hesitant to cross law enforcement.

JOHN LESCH: I got an email from a Democratic senator forwarded to me just the other day. And then it was copied by his local sheriff. He said, if my local sheriff is against this, there's no way this bill is getting my vote.

KASTE: Law enforcement says it needs civil asset forfeiture, especially to confiscate drug money when the traffickers can't be found and prosecuted. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie says the bill in the Minnesota legislature would make it harder for him to disrupt the growing meth networks in his region. But he also acknowledges the political importance of high-profile cases such as Timbs.

TIM LESLIE: Those outrageous examples, we have to face those. But we just don't want the pendulum to swing too far. We want to still have some tools for the outrageous things that we see.

KASTE: As to Tyson Timbs, whether he ever gets his truck back is still undecided. The Supreme Court left that decision to the courts in Indiana.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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