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EDITORIAL: Supreme Court draws the line on excessive forfeitures

Apparently today’s progressives do indeed recognize at least some constitutional limits on the authority of the state. This is highly encouraging news.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Constitution imposes restrictions on the practice of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect was used in a crime.

The case involved an Indiana man who pleaded guilty to selling $225 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer. Tyson Timbs was sentenced to five years of probation along with $1,200 in fees and fines. Prosecutors, however, subsequently initiated forfeiture proceedings against the $42,000 Range Rover he was driving at the time.

Timbs argued the seizure ran afoul of a clause in the Bill of Rights prohibiting “excessive fines.” Indiana countered the Eighth Amendment didn’t apply to the states, even though the high court has ruled that most protections in the Bill of Rights were “incorporated” against the states by the 14th Amendment.

“For good reason,” wrote progressive superstar Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the court, “the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”

Wednesday’s decision ensures that the states must pay heed to the Eighth Amendment and opens the door to further restraints on a controversial tactic that allows the authorities to seize cars, homes, cash and other valuables from people who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, criminal activity. The practice has “little judicial oversight” and has been beset by “well-chronicled abuses,” Justice Clarence Thomas noted in 2017.

“Today’s ruling should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit’ — where police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property, then sell it and keep the profits to fund their departments,” said Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs. “This gives them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power and impose excessive fines.”

Timbs’ foray into the forfeiture rabbit hole came after he had actually admitted to a crime. That’s not the case for many innocent property owners who have become ensnared in the system. Several states have moved to ensure that only those who have been found guilty in court may lose their property to the state through forfeiture. Nevada lawmakers should follow suit.

In the meantime, Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling ensures that state and local authorities must now demonstrate that forfeiture bounty is proportional to the alleged offense. That’s welcome progress.

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