WASHINGTON — Tyson Timbs plunked down about $40,000 on a new white Land Rover in 2013. He spent the remaining $30,000 or so of the life insurance money he received after his father’s death on heroin.
Desperate when the money ran out, Timbs sold less than $400 worth of heroin to undercover police officers. Timbs was arrested and lost the Land Rover.
Those are the simple facts at the heart of a Supreme Court case, set for arguments today, about whether the seizure of the vehicle by local authorities violates the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.
A judge ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana’s top court said the justices have never ruled whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.
The case has drawn interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation.
“At first it was about getting my truck back because I was mad, and I wanted my stuff back. Now it’s a lot different,” said Timbs, 37, who lives with his aunt in Marion, Ind. “I was curious to see how often they did this to people. They do it a lot around here, and apparently it’s done all over the country.”
Timbs’ criminal sentence included no prison time, a year of house arrest and five years on probation.
Wesley Hottot, Timbs’ lawyer at the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, said police and prosecutors have great incentive to use civil forfeiture to take property from people who have been arrested, regardless of whether they eventually are convicted.
“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights today,” Hottot said.
Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, a Republican, said in a court filing that the right at issue in the case is not the sort of fundamental right that the justices extended to the states in cases about guns and speech, among others.
In earlier cases applying parts of the Bill of Rights to the states, the court used the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to ensure the rights of newly freed slaves.
The court also has relied on that same clause — “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law” — in cases that established a woman’s right to an abortion and knocked down state laws against interracial marriage and gay sex.
The story of how Timbs ended up in the Supreme Court began with steel-toed boots he bought for work in a truck factory. They hurt his feet, but he couldn’t immediately afford the insoles he was told to buy. A doctor wrote a prescription for hydrocodone. Before long, Timbs was hooked on heroin.
He tried several times to get clean, but said he wasn’t ready. The life insurance money seemed a blessing, but it wasn’t, Timbs said.
“A drug addict shouldn’t have a whole lot of money. That’s not a good idea,” he said,
Timbs hasn’t driven the car since his arrest in 2013. His aunt allows him to use her 2012 Dodge Avenger, for which he said he is especially appreciative. “But it’s definitely not a Land Rover,” Timbs said.
He used to see the Land Rover when he passed by the lot where it was kept, but it’s been moved.
They’re together again in the title of the Supreme Court case, Tyson Timbs and a 2012 Land Rover LR2 v. Indiana. But only Timbs is expected in the courtroom today.