The U.S. Supreme Court often is as divided as the rest of the country. It is unusual for the justices to hear a case upon which they can all agree.
Indiana’s law enforcement and court system came through last week, though, providing a case in which a $400 heroin sale resulted in the confiscation of a $40,000 Land Rover.
That is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines. The Supreme Court, however, had never explicitly affirmed that this section of the Eighth Amendment applies to actions taken by the states as well as the federal government.
Consider that problem resolved, and rightly so. The guy who dealt the drugs deserved to be punished, but seizing a vehicle worth 100 times the value of the drug sale defines excessive.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion said it’s a disturbing trend among law-enforcement agencies to seek the civil forfeiture of property that’s linked to a crime as a way to get extra revenue during tight budget times. Just this month, the Mississippi Legislature rejected a push by lawmen to restore their power to seize and keep alleged drug offenders’ property without a judge’s approval.
The Supreme Court’s ruling underscores why civil forfeiture needs close scrutiny. It’s prone to abuse.