EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, June 11, 2021

Supreme Court of Indiana Finds Tyson Timbs's Land Rover Was Unconstitutionally Forfeited, Comparing Him to Captain Ahab

In Timbs v. Indiana, Tyson Timbs

was charged in June 2013 with two counts of dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, all felonies. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to selling $260 worth of heroin and served a year of home detention and five years of probation, which he is still on.

His Land Rover was taken by the government in a process known as "civil asset forfeiture," which allows police to seize and keep property alleged to have been used in a crime.

By Indiana law, however, the maximum fine for Timbs' crime was $10,000 — well below the value of the seized vehicle.

The question thus became whether the forfeiture of the Land Rover violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. This led to the predicate question of whether the Excessive Fines Clause is applicable to the States. In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court answered this question in the affirmative, holding that "[t]he Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." 

So, was this Clause violated by the forfeiture of the Land Rover?

In its opinion yesterday, the Supreme Court of Indiana also answered this question in the affirmative, comparing Tyson Timbs to Captain Ahab:

We chronicle and confront, for the third time, the State’s quest to forfeit Tyson Timbs’s now-famous white Land Rover. And, again, the same overarching question looms: would the forfeiture be constitutional?

Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick, this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again. During the voyage, several points have come to light. First, the vehicle’s forfeiture, due to its punitive nature, is subject to the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. Next, to stay within the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle must meet two requirements: instrumentality and proportionality. And, finally, the forfeiture falls within the instrumentality limit because the vehicle was the actual means by which Timbs committed the underlying drug offense.

But, until now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved—that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse?

The court then found that the forfeiture was grossly disproportionate, concluding that

even though Timbs’s blameworthiness was high, the in rem forfeiture was highly punitive and thus overly harsh, and the severity of the crime underlying the forfeiture case was minimal. After weighing these factors, we conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s corresponding criminal use. In other words, Timbs met his burden.

To be sure, the Land Rover’s forfeiture is not unconstitutional just because Timbs was poor. Or because he suffered from addiction. Or because he dealt drugs to an undercover officer and not someone who would use them. And it’s not simply because the vehicle’s value was three-and-a-half times the maximum fine for the underlying offense. Or because he received the minimum possible sentence for his crime and wasn’t a sophisticated, experienced dealer. Or because the car, his only asset, was essential to him reintegrating into society to maintain employment and seek treatment. Rather, it’s the confluence of all these facts that makes Timbs the unusual claimant who could overcome the high hurdle of showing gross disproportionality.



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