In February of 2021, almost eight years after the state of Indiana seized Tyson Timbs’ brand-new Land Rover over a drug crime, prosecutors argued that there should be no proportionality when it comes to such offenses—in other words, that the government should essentially be free to take everything you’re worth.
Today, the state’s highest court categorically rejected that.
The conclusion is not only good for Timbs—who will get to keep his vehicle, once and for all—but for others who would have fallen victim to Indiana prosecutors’ extremely broad definition of what constitutes a legal and proportional civil forfeiture. The practice allows the government to take your property and pocket it, sometimes if you’re only suspected of committing a crime. In Indiana, prosecutors must merely meet the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires less than evidence than is needed to get a criminal conviction.
After unsuccessfully making his way through the state courts, Timbs’ case was the subject of a 2019 landmark Supreme Court ruling, which dictated that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines and fees applies to state governments. His case then returned to Indiana’s high court, whose judges sent it back to the trial court and back up again.
In other words, this was the third time the Indiana Supreme Court was tasked with deciding who owned Tyson Timb’s car: Timbs, or the state.
Timbs—and those who might find themselves in a similar position—finally won.
“Today’s ruling is an important victory for property rights across Indiana,” says Timbs’ attorney, Sam Gedge of the Institute for Justice. “We’re thrilled that the Indiana Supreme Court recognized the government’s overreach in Tyson’s case, and we think it’s going to be a key precedent in combatting civil forfeiture going forward.”
Chief Justice Loretta Rush likened the government’s chutzpah to “Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick.” Timbs, she concluded, “met his high burden to show that the harshness of his Land Rover’s forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse.”
She added that “addiction is not a categorical means to inflate the seriousness of a predicate offense”—a rebuke of the government’s quest to set no limit on what they can take from people who struggle with drug issues.
Indiana prosecutors’ position may sound extreme, but it fits right in with the state’s general attitude toward legalized theft. Also in February of this year, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to seize assets from people suspected of “unlawful assembly,” a vague crime often used to break up protests.
“The attorney general’s ‘anything goes’ approach to civil forfeiture has definitely hit a setback with today’s decision,” says Gedge.