Citizens of Illinois arrested for a crime may see the state confiscate their property, such as houses or cars, if the state believes that the owner of the property used it in the commission of a crime, even if the use was only tangential. However, the United States Supreme Court may decide to limit this process, known as civil asset forfeiture, on the grounds that it may violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against excessive fines. Up until now, the prevailing opinion of the courts has been that the ban against excessive fines applies only to the federal government, not the states, when it comes to levying fines against property.
A man arrested in Indiana for selling a small amount of heroin to an undercover cop for $400 saw his $42,000 Land Rover seized by the state government. His punishment also included a year of house detention and other fines. The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed with a trial judge and appeals court that decided it was a grossly disproportionate punishment for the state to take the man’s SUV in addition to other penalties.
While convicting the man of a crime, the trial judge on the case sentenced the man on the low end of the scale and ruled the state’s civil asset forfeiture attempt as disproportionate. Now that the matter is before the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorney representing the man has asked the high court to overrule the decision of the Indiana Supreme Court, which upheld the state’s decision to confiscate the vehicle.
Though the Supreme Court has not yet made a decision, the reactions of the justices as they listened to the case last Wednesday indicated that they may be willing to rule that the Eighth Amendment applies to the states as well as the federal government. Those affected by civil asset forfeiture with questions about its legality may find it helpful to consult an attorney.