U.S. Supreme Court begins to restrain government forfeitures and fines

Spiros Tsimbinos is an appellate attorney, author and lecturer on legal issues. Photo courtesy of the Queens County Bar Association.

Spiros Tsimbinos is an appellate attorney, author and lecturer on legal issues. Photo courtesy of the Queens County Bar Association.

By Spiros Tsimbinos

Special to the Eagle

In February 2019, the Supreme Court issued an important decision which should have a significant impact on New York State, regarding the imposition of excessive fines and the aggressive use of asset forfeiture.  

The Court in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (February 20, 2019), issued a unanimous decision that held that the Constitutional prohibition in the Eighth Amendment regarding excessive fines also applies to state and local governments, thereby limiting their ability to impose financial penalties and to seize property.  

The Court based its conclusion on the application of the Eighth Amendment to the States through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion was rendered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was reached unanimously bringing both conservative and liberal sides of the Court together in a rare moment of consensus on an important issue.  

In issuing its opinion, the Court expressed concerns that local and state governments had resorted to excessive fines and forfeitures as a means of obtaining income. A national study had discovered that sixty percent of the 1400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a necessary part of their budgets.  Here in New York, District Attorney’s offices have accumulated each year substantial sums of money obtained through the implementation of asset forfeitures and Courts have used monies obtained from fines to assist in the running of court facilities.

In recent years, prior to its ruling in the Indiana case, the Supreme Court had taken certain steps to restrict excessive fines and forfeitures. Thus, the Court in Nelson v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 1249 (April 2017), struck down a statute which required defendants to prove by clear and convincing evidence in a civil proceeding that they were innocent before the State would return fees, court costs and restitutions exacted from defendants whose convictions were substantially invalidated by Appellate Courts and no re-trial had occurred. The Court in Honeycutt v. U.S., 137 S. Ct. 1626 (June 5, 2017), also ruled that a co-conspirator is not subject to forfeiture on the basis of co-conspirator liability and that the Federal Forfeiture Act is limited to property the defendant actually acquired as a result of the crime.

The facts of the Indiana case involved a defendant who had his SUV seized after his arrest for the sale of a small amount of heroin. The drugs were worth a few hundred dollars but the Land Rover 502 was worth $42,000. Justice Ginsburg noted in her opinion that the value of the vehicle was more than four times the maximum monetary fine assessed for his drug conviction.  The Indiana Supreme Court along with a small number of states had concluded that the excessive fine section of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the states. The Supreme Court ruling rejected Indiana’s position and clearly held that it was wrong to conclude that the eight amendment protections did not apply.

The Supreme Court in issuing its ruling did not provide exact calculations for determining a fair fine or seizure. Thus, police and prosecutors must re-evaluate their current practices and establish new guidelines. New York State which has aggressively utilized civil forfeitures as a prosecution tool may now have to reconsider its fine and forfeiture procedures. The legislature may also have to re-evaluate the forfeiture and fine statutes which apply to New York criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court ruling will therefore have a significant impact on how things are done in the future regarding these matters.  

Spiros Tsimbinos is an appellate attorney, author and lecturer on legal issues. He is a past president of the Queens County Bar Association and a former editor of the New York State Bar Association Criminal Law Journal.