It’s been almost seven years to the day since the state of Indiana seized resident Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover for a drug crime, launching a legal odyssey that would take Timbs all the way to the Supreme Court and lead to a landmark ruling on civil asset forfeiture.
On Tuesday, Timbs arrived home to find that same Land Rover back in his driveway.
Although the Indiana Attorney General is still appealing Timbs’ case at the Indiana Supreme Court—the third time the court has been asked to consider the tangled case of Timbs’ SUV—his car has been returned for the moment, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that represents Timbs and has challenged forfeiture laws in several states.
“For years, this case has been important not just for me, but for thousands of people who are caught up in forfeiture lawsuits,” Tyson said in a press release. “To me, the State’s refusal to give back my car has never made sense; if they’re trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and be contributing members of society.”
Timbs pleaded guilty in 2015 to selling heroin to undercover police officers and was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation. But Indiana also used a practice known as civil asset forfeiture to seize his $42,000 Land Rover, which Timbs purchased with money from his late father’s life insurance payout, not the proceeds of drug sales.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is a critical tool for disrupting drug trafficking and other organized crime.
However, civil liberties groups say the practice creates perverse profit incentives for police and is disproportionately used against low-level offenders like Timbs, and in many cases against people who aren’t even charged with a crime. More than half of U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reforms in response to these concerns.
Timbs challenged the seizure, arguing that taking his vehicle, which was worth four times the maximum fine for the crime he committed, amounted to an unconstitutionally excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected that argument on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court had never explicitly ruled that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states—a doctrine known as “incorporation.”
Last February, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment and its protections against excessive fines and fees applied to states. “For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the Court’s opinion. The ruling opened up a new avenue for plaintiffs like Timbs trying to challenge asset forfeiture in court.
The Supreme Court, however, did not rule on what constituted an “excessive” fine. It kicked that question back to the Indiana Supreme Court, which created a three-prong test last October to determine when a government fine or seizure is disproportionate to the alleged offense. The Indiana Supreme Court in turn sent Timbs’ case back to a state trial court to be reconsidered.
In April, an Indiana judge ruled that, under the new test, the seizure of Timbs’ Land Rover—”a tool essential to maintaining employment, obtaining treatment, and reducing the likelihood that he would ever again commit another criminal offense”—was unconstitutionally excessive and ordered the vehicle returned.
The Indiana Attorney General is now appealing that decision to the state supreme court, again.
“Tyson’s case has gone through every level of the American judicial system—in some instances, twice,” Institute for Justice senior attorney Wesley Hottot said in a statement. “The state’s relentless use of its forfeiture machine is—and continues to be—a profoundly unjust exercise of power, and it underscores that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.”