Municipal Liability, Publications

SCOTUS Cracks Down on Excessive Seizures by Police Departments, Municipalities

February 25, 2019

The U. S. Supreme Court has curbed the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property under the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution.  In a recent case, Timbs v. Indiana, the Court ruled that the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover was excessive compared to the criminal activity that carried a maximum $10,000 fine. Police departments often use seized vehicles in their undercover operations.

The case under review stemmed from a 2013 arrest of a man in Indiana, who later pleaded guilty to dealing a controlled substance, heroin.  Police seized the man’s Land Rover, which he had recently purchased using money from an insurance settlement.  Police sought civil forfeiture of the vehicle, claiming it was used in the commission of the crime.

The Court ruled that the seizure of the Land Rover was disproportionate to the Indiana man’s maximum monetary fine of $10,000 and therefore, unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fine Clause. In addition, the Court noted that the Land Rover was purchased with legal funds, not the proceeds from the drug transaction.

The message being sent by the Court is clear, explained Brian P. Gainer, a Johnson & Bell Shareholder.  If you are seeking to seize assets there needs to be a clear line tying the purchase of those assets to criminal behavior, he said. For the most part, courts have been consistent on this point.

Gainer further explained that where there might be confusion are in those instances where large value assets were seized as a result of criminal activities that carried minimal fines or the asset was acquired with legal funds, as in this court case.  In these situations, he stated, municipalities should be ready to confront lawsuits seeking the release of these high value assets. In spite of this ruling, Gainer anticipates that municipalities will still seize assets funded via criminal behavior – and Johnson & Bell’s Municipal Liability group will defend their right to do so.

To review the SCOTUS ruling, please download the PDF.

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