SCOTUS Strikes Unanimous Blow Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

SCOTUS Strikes Unanimous Blow Against Civil Asset Forfeiture February 21, 2019

The Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that diminishes, but does not eliminate, the ability of state and local law enforcement to use excessive fines to seize property from those convicted of crimes. The case involves the seizure of a $42,000 vehicle after a conviction for selling a couple hundred dollars worth of drugs.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose fines and seize property.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on just her second day back on the bench after undergoing cancer surgery in December, announced the decision for the court, saying that the 8th Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause protects against government retribution.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

This doesn’t go nearly far enough, of course, but the case did not look directly at the question of civil asset forfeiture in general. The real problems with that practice involve seizing property on the presumption that it was either used in the commission of a crime or gained through the commission of a crime without actually convicting someone of that crime. But the unanimous decision suggests that if a case that does strike at the heart of asset forfeiture comes before the court, it’s likely to end with the right result. This is very good news.

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