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Indiana Supreme Court Applies Recently Announced Proportionality Framework for In Rem Fines and Holds Forfeiture of $35,000 Land Rover Grossly Disproportionate to Underlying Offense in Violation of Eighth Amendment, Ending 7-Year Saga

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Indiana affirmed the holding of the Grant Superior Court, which found that forfeiture of Tyson Timbs’ Land Rover was grossly disproportionate to his crime of conviction in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.
Timbs had been prescribed opiates and had become addicted. He then began seeking heroin. After his father died, Timbs used life insurance proceeds to purchase a Land Rover. He also spent about $30,000 on heroin. Timbs used the Land Rover to travel to sites where he bought and sold heroin. (An undercover officer made two controlled buys totaling $385.) At the time of forfeiture, the vehicle was worth approximately $35,000. Timbs ultimately pleaded guilty to two drug-related offenses and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, serving one year of home incarceration and five years of probation. Timbs was also ordered to pay $1,203 in costs and fees.

In August 2013, the State began its attempt to seize Timbs’ Land Rover via asset forfeiture under Indiana Code § 34-24-1(a)(1)(A), alleging he had used his Land Rover to illegally purchase, possess, and deal narcotics. After a hearing, the trial court ruled in favor of Timbs, ruling forfeiture would be grossly disproportionate to his criminal offense in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding the Excessive Fines Clause had not been incorporated against the states yet. State v. Timbs, 84 N.E.3d 1179 (Ind. 2017) (“Timbs I”). The Court also concluded that the State had proven its entitlement to the Land Rover under Indiana law. Id.
Timbs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019). [See: CLN, April 2019.] However, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t provide guidance on how courts should determine whether an in rem (action against property) fine is excessive.

On remand, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that the Excessive Fines Clause includes both instrumentality and proportionality limitations for use-based in rem fines like the forfeiture of Timbs’ vehicle. State v. Timbs, 134 N.E.3d 12 (Ind. 2019) (“Timbs II”). [See: CLN, February 2020.] The Court, in turn, remanded to the Grant Superior Court for a determination as to whether the forfeiture penalty was grossly disproportionate under the Court’s new framework announced in Timbs II.

The Grant Superior Court found that Timbs met his burden to establish gross disproportionality. Based on this finding, the Superior Court held that Indiana Code § 34-24-1-1(a)(1)(A) was unconstitutional as applied to him. The State appealed directly to the Indiana Supreme Court, urging the Court to adopt an instrumentality-only test for measuring excessiveness with respect to in rem fines and abandon the two-prong test announced in Timbs II. The Court declined to do so.
The Court noted that “until now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved—that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’ dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse?”

It explained that the framework set forth in Timbs II for analyzing challenges to in rem actions involves a dual inquiry under the Excessive Fines Clause: “We first look to whether the property was the ‘instrument’ by which the crimes underlying the State’s forfeiture case were committed. [instrumentality limitation] If so, we next consider whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the punitive value of the in rem fine was ‘grossly disproportional’ to the gravity of the underlying offenses and the owner’s culpability for the property’s criminal use. [proportionality limitation]”

The proportionality inquiry requires courts to focus on three major considerations: (1) the harshness of the punishment, (2) the severity of the offenses, and (3) the claimant’s culpability. Timbs II. According to the Court, this is a “fact intensive” inquiry; Timbs II spells “out various nonexclusive factors courts could take into account when applying the standard.”

Addressing the harshness factor, the Court stated that Timbs II instructs that: “a court could consider the property’s role in the underlying offense; its use in other activities, criminal or lawful; the extent to which its forfeiture would remedy the harm caused; the property’s market value; other sanctions imposed; and the effects the forfeiture will have on the claimant.” Applying that guidance to the present case, the Court reasoned that the forfeiture was more punitive than remedial because forfeiture didn’t do anything to remedy the harm caused by the crime; the market value of the Land Rover ($35,000) was three and one-half times the maximum fine ($10,000) for Timbs’ crime; forfeiture burdened Timbs’ ability to travel to work and to drug treatment; and the Land Rover was Timbs’ only asset.

As to severity of offense, the Court explained that courts are instructed to look at the seriousness of the offense, “considering statutory penalties; the seriousness of the specific crime committed compared to other variants of the offense, looking at sentences imposed; the harm caused by the crime committed; and the relationship of the offense to other criminal activity.” See Timbs II. The Court observed that Timbs was convicted of a Class B felony that carries up to 20 years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. However, he had sold only two grams of heroin and was given the lowest sentence. In fact, it was the State that offered him that sentence as part of the plea agreement. The Court provided a fact-intensive, detailed discussion for why the severity of Timbs’ “underlying offense was minimal.”

“The culpability consideration focuses on the claimant’s blameworthiness for the property’s use as an instrumentality of the underlying offenses.” Timbs II. On the low end are the claimants who are “entirely innocent of the property’s misuse”; on the high end are those “who used the property to commit the underlying offenses.” Id. In the instant case, the Court agreed with the Superior Court that Timbs’ culpability was on the high end of the spectrum because he personally used the Land Rover to drive to locations to buy and sell heroin.

Ultimately, the Court held that under the proportionality framework set forth in Timbs II, the forfeiture of Timbs’ Land Rover was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Grant Superior Court and declared that “the seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.” See: State v. Timbs, 169 N.E.3d (Ind. 2021). 

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