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Supreme Court Makes Constitutional History in Civil Forfeiture Laws Case

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Every now and then, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, we get to share some good political news with you. Now is thankfully one of those times.

On Wednesday (Feb. 20), the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Timbs v. Indiana that finally imposes the Excessive Fines Clause on all 50 states, as Slate reports.

For those of you who aren’t constitutional nerds, the Excessive Fines Clause is part of the Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

However, up until Timbs v. Indiana, the Excessive Fines Clause was not implemented in all 50 states, meaning that civil forfeiture laws incentivized government seizure of property—even property belonging to people completely innocent of any wrongdoing. It’s a twisted loophole in our justice system that allows law enforcement to take property (anything from vehicles to cash to homes) that is merely suspected to be tied to criminal activity. As the Institute for Justice outlines, the owner doesn’t even need to be charged or convicted of a crime for their property to be taken.

This is different from criminal forfeiture, in which a criminal conviction is necessary for law enforcement to take property. The distinction matters greatly because, as Slate notes, civil forfeiture “lacks the due process safeguards of a criminal trial.” Law enforcement receives at least a cut of the profits from these forfeitures under most civil forfeiture laws—if not all of them—meaning they have a financial stake in these seizures.

The proceeds from these forfeitures have skyrocketed since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2014, the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund received $4.5 billion in revenue thanks to federal forfeitures, up drastically from $93.7 million in 1986. That’s a whopping 4,667-percent increase.

Now, though, thanks to the ruling authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Excessive Fines Clause is being imposed in all of the states. Previously the Eighth Amendment had only applied on a federal level. Even though the 14th Amendment extended the Bill of Rights’ reach to the state level, it has only been implemented incrementally.

And while Neil Gorsuch is a far-right nut-job, we have to admit that he had a point in November when he said, as per Slate: “And here we are in 2018, still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on, General.”

In the ruling, Ginsburg went all the way back to the Magna Carta in her argument for the right against excessive fines, concluding, “In short, the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.”

It remains to be seen how extensive the new ruling’s reach will be. By no means will it eliminate policing for profit overnight, but it promises more justice going forward.

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