The New Black Codes: Racialized Wealth Extraction, Economic Justice, and Excessive Fines Schemes in Timbs v. Indiana

Emma Coleman Jordan and Angela P. Harris –

timbs.jpegWhen Tyson Timbs’ father died, he left his son an insurance policy. Timbs used $42,000 of that money to buy a Land Rover SUV, and he was driving that car when he was arrested for selling heroin to an undercover police officer in Indiana. Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft, and the judge sentenced him to one year of home detention, five years of probation (including a court-supervised addiction treatment program), and $1,203 in fees in costs.

The State of Indiana, however, was not done with Timbs. It hired a private lawyer to bring a civil forfeiture action against Timbs’ Land Rover, on the theory that the vehicle had been used to commit the crime of transporting heroin. The court held that the Land Rover was indeed used in the commission of an offense, but denied the requested forfeiture, observing that its purchase price was more than four times the maximum he might have been fined for his actual conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the judge determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, and for that reason it would be unconstitutional under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed on a different ground, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to federal but not state governments.

When the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Timbs v. Indiana, anticipation ran high across the political spectrum, and revealed some strange bedfellows. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Cato Institute appeared on the same amicus brief. Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayor energetically agreed with one another during oral argument. However, when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision on February 20, 2019, the opinion offered less than interested parties might have hoped for. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, affirmed that the Excessive Fines Clause does apply to the states, as “incorporated” into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and held that in rem forfeitures fall within the Clause’s protections. The Court, however, did not offer a standard for deciding when a fine is excessive. From our perspective, moreover, Timbs v. Indiana represents a missed opportunity to discuss racialized wealth extraction in its past and present forms, and to situate the Excessive Fines Clause within the constitutional debate about economic rights that arise from predation by the government itself.

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