Justice and Due Process

Asset Forfeiture Reform Is Great. More Is Better.

Who knew a 2013 Land Rover would cause law enforcement to be on their toes through eight years of legal battles? Tyson Timbs, the owner of the vehicle, probably didn’t. Yet, with every new court hearing comes another win for him and for the precedent of constitutional justice. Let me explain.

In 2013, Indiana police confiscated Timbs’ car after he sold $385 worth of heroin to an undercover cop. Timbs pleaded guilty to the crime and paid all the associated court fees. But even after the case was completed, he couldn’t get his car back from the state. 

The police seized his car under the process of civil asset forfeiture, which as Libertas President Connor Boyack summarizes nicely, is a process where “the government can legally steal from you.” 

Timbs was convicted of an actual crime, but asset forfeiture laws don’t require a conviction. The process instead only requires suspicion that the assets were used in the commission of a crime. Still, even with a conviction, $42,000 — the price he purchased the car for — is a hefty amount to pay for a $385 mistake. And the courts agreed, multiple times.

Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice, breaks it down best in his recent Forbes article on the case. To summarize, the United States Supreme Court found the taking violated the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. Indiana Supreme Court then developed a standard to determine excessive fines, and the trial court (who initially sided with Timbs in the question of excessive fines) sided again with Timbs.

And it wasn’t done there. Prosecutors then brought the case back to Indiana Supreme Court, who, on June 10th, sided with Timbs yet again by declaring that “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.”

Although it’s the third time the court has sided with Tyson Timbs, apparently the state of Indiana just can’t take a hint. But hopefully, the third time’s a charm. 

Here in Utah, the state is facing its own civil asset forfeiture problems. Our fight isn’t in court, but instead within the walls of the state legislature who has finally taken action on reform in the 2021 legislative session. 

Libertas Institute helped Senator Weiler pass new restrictions on civil asset forfeiture. The legislation, Senate Bill 98, is the result of years of negotiations with stakeholders and makes quite a few changes to the law. It clarifies that state courts have jurisdiction over seized property to ensure it’s not transferred to the feds.  It requires more transparency in the forfeiture process for those impacted by a government taking. It prohibits law enforcement from taking property pursuant to certain drug possession charges. It does many more things, outlined by Boyack

There’s still a lot of work to be done to fully protect an individual’s private property from being taken by law enforcement. While Indiana sets national precedents in the courtroom, specifically on clarifying what is deemed to be an excessive fine, Utah should continue to work on making the laws better for the state. 

And that’s exactly what we’re working on.