by Mark Joseph Stern, Slate
The Supreme Court struck an extraordinary blow for criminal justice reform on recently, placing real limitations on policing for profit across the country. Its unanimous decision for the first time prohibits all 50 states from imposing excessive fines, including the seizure of property, on people accused or convicted of a crime. Rarely does the court hand down a ruling of such constitutional magnitude — and seldom do all nine justices agree to restrict the power that police and prosecutors exert over individuals. The landmark decision represents a broad agreement on the Supreme Court that law enforcement’s legalized theft has gone too far.
The ruling in Timbs v. Indiana, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is sharp and concise. It revolves around a single question of extraordinary importance. The Eighth Amendment guarantees that no “excessive fines” may be “imposed,” an ancient right enshrined in the Magna Carta and enthusiastically adopted by the Framers. But the Bill of Rights originally applied only to the federal government, not the states. After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was ratified to apply these rights to the states, which had engaged in grotesque civil rights violations to perpetuate slavery. The Supreme Court, however, slowly applied (or “incorporated”) these rights against the states one by one, not all at once. And before Timbs, it had never incorporated the Excessive Fines Clause—allowing states to exploit their residents for huge sums of cash and property.
They did so through civil asset forfeiture, a process that we would call theft in any other context. Here’s how it works: Prosecutors accuse an individual of a crime, then seize assets that have some tenuous connection to the alleged offense. The individual need not be convicted or even charged with an actual crime, and her assets are seized through a civil proceeding, which lacks the due process safeguards of a criminal trial. Law enforcement can seize money or property, including one’s home, business, or vehicle. It gets to keep the profits, creating a perverse incentive that encourages police abuses. Because the standards are so loose, people with little to no involvement in criminal activity often get caught up in civil asset forfeiture. For instance, South Carolina police tried to seize an elderly woman’s home because drug deals occurred on the property—even though she had no connection to the crimes and tried to stop them.
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