As expected, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't put an end to government's authority to seize the assets of private citizens, law-abiding or otherwise.
But justices did declare that local and state governments in all 50 states cannot simply seize whatever they wish in ruling that the U.S. Constitution limits the amount of private property -- cash, cars, houses, etc. -- that can be taken and kept by claiming it may have been used in the commission of a crime.
In the case of Tyson Timbs, an addict whose $40,000 SUV was seized after he was convicted of selling a few grams of heroin worth $280, the unanimous court declared that the U.S. Constitution's excessive fines prohibition also applies to state and local government seizures.
That's what civil libertarians hoped would be the outcome of Timbs v. Indiana, a textbook case of the government overreach at work in too many seizures of property at the state and local levels.
Justices, led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed. Writing for eight of the nine justices, she declared, “The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” she wrote.
In recognizing that the seizure constituted an excessive fine because the vehicle was valued at more than four times the maximum fine allowed by Indiana law, and 30 times more than the fine Timbs paid for a crime for which he served home detention, the court made it possible to challenge seizures after the fact when the punishment does not fit the crime.
The ruling also repudiated the Indiana's solicitor general's terrifying suggestion that government seizure power is so wide ranging, it allows authorities to seize the vehicles -- luxury or lemons -- of motorists caught driving five miles over the speed limit.
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To be clear, last Wednesday's decision did not kill civil asset forfeiture.
As the Institute for Justice's Wesley P. Hottot, who argued the case for Timbs, told the New York Times, “People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, they’re still going to have their property seized. The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, whether I’m guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive.”
Also as expected, the court declined to set guidelines for determining when fines are excessive. Still, the ruling represents an emphatic rejection of overreach. Like Ginsburg, we hope it also will influence each state to create a way to judge the appropriateness of seizures.
Ideally, the decision also will inspire and embolden states, including Illinois, to enact aggressive due process safeguard such as the one contained in a bill approved by the North Dakota House last Wednesday -- the day justices handed down their landmark excessive fines decision.
That bill would require a criminal conviction before authorities can seize cash or valuables they believe to be ill-gotten. It won't be an easy sell. The North Dakota Senate, for example, rejected a similar bill in 2017. And Illinois lawmakers declined to include this gold standard in forfeiture law in a package of welcome reforms a few years ago.
Such a change would have protected innocent people like the Moline woman who had to battle to get back her vehicle, which was seized because authorities believed her grandson was driving it on a suspended license; he wasn't.
Revisiting the conviction requirement also would allow Illinois lawmakers to join justices in checking unbridled civil asset forfeiture, freeing innocent Illinoisans from its often devastating impact.