Monday, November 26, 2018
On November 28, 2018, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Timbs v. Indiana, raising the issue of whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "excessive fines" is incorporated as against the States and arguably whether this includes forfeitures.
The Indiana Supreme Court's brief opinion clearly concluded that "the Excessive Fines Clause does not bar the State from forfeiting Defendant's vehicle because the United States Supreme Court has not held that the Clause applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment." The Indiana Supreme Court cited footnote 13 of McDonald v. City of Chicago, in which a majority of the Court found that the Second Amendment was incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment (with a plurality relying on the Due Process Clause). Recall that in footnote 12, Justice Alito's plurality opinion in McDonald listed the provisions of the Bill of Rights that had been incorporated with citations, while in footnote 13, Justice Alito listed the few remaining provisions not incorporated, also with citations.
Justice Alito's citation in footnote 14 of McDonald is to "Browning-Ferris Industries of Vt. v. Kelco Disposal (1989) (declining to decide whether the excessive-fines protection applies to the states)." Yet as the Indiana Supreme Court notes, in its 2001 opinion in Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., the Court stated that the Fourteenth Amendment made the "Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishments applicable to the States." The Indiana Supreme Court decided that the Cooper Industries statement was dicta and that the McDonald footnote omission of Cooper supported that conclusion ("we will not conclude lightly that the Supreme Court whiffed on the existence or meaning of its precedent").
Whatever the status of precedent, however, the Court is poised to resolve the question of the incorporation of the Excessive Fines Clause to the States. The amicus briefs tilt heavily in this direction. One possible wrinkle is the relationship between forfeiture and excessive fines, with the State of Indiana arguing that the issue is whether there is a right to proportionality in forfeiture proceedings that is sufficiently fundamental to meet the incorporation test (whether the right is deeply rooted in this nation's history and traditions and whether the right is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty).