Especially in cases involving drugs, state and federal governments have the authority to seize property that can be tied to illegal activity. These seizures are often performed before the owner has been tried and can be extremely difficult to reverse, even when the defendant is never convicted. How far can the government go with these seizures?
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive fines, and the application of the Fourteenth Amendment arguably applies the same prohibition to state governments. In light of this, some judges are pushing back against large forfeitures.
In one 2013 case, an Indiana judge ruled that the seizure of a defendant's SUV amounted to a fine that was grossly disproportionate to the minor drug offense he was convicted of. Prosecutors appealed, and the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment only applies to the federal government.
The case highlights how government forfeitures can be problematic and even counterproductive. According to reports, the defendant suffered a work-related injury for which he received an insurance settlement. He used some of that money to buy a 2012 Land Rover LR2.
Unfortunately, the defendant became addicted to opioids and ultimately heroin. Once his insurance money ran out, he resorted to selling small amounts of heroin to get buy. Undercover officers bought a total of four grams from the man. When he had no more to sell. they arrested him and charged him with dealing heroin and other offenses.
The defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest, five years of probation and $1,203 in fees and fines. Then, the state attempted to seize the Land Rover.
The SUV was worth $41,558, while the maximum penalty for the defendant's crimes was $10,000. Therefore, the judge refused to allow the seizure on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment.
"Without my car, it is incredibly difficult to do all the things the government wants me to do to stay clean, like visit my probation officer, go to AA, and keep my job," said the defendant. "Right now, I'm borrowing my aunt's car to go to work so we can pay the bills, and she has to take a bus back and forth to her kidney dialysis appointments. You need a car to do all of these things."
Should the government be allowed to seize defendants' vehicles even when that causes substantial hardship? Even when they have little connection to criminal behavior? Does the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines, if it applies to government seizures, apply to states as well as the federal government? The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case this winter.