On February 19th, the Supreme Court ruled in an asset forfeiture case that the seizure of a $42,000 Range Rover from an Indiana man for selling heroin to undercover cops for $225 was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. The ruling noted that the fine for the offense to which the man pleaded guilty was a maximum of $10,000, only a fourth of what the Range Rover was worth.
The Institute for Justice was the main challenger to the Range Rover seizure.
The ruling of the court was unanimous. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her first day back on the court, wrote the decision. She wrote:
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”
Referring to an earlier decision, Justice Ginsburg wrote:
“….. fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue’ …..”
In response to the court’s ruling, the Harris County Republican Party executive committee has proposed a resolution “Honoring and expressing appreciation to The Institute for Justice, the entire Supreme Court of the United States, and notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who wrote the majority opinion.”
Asset forfeitures are being used to seize the assets gained through the illegal sales of drugs. Here is a good example.
The last drug raid I went on was on a meth lab deep in San Bernardino County’s high desert. That lab and one in Los Angeles County was operated by a 17-year- old Mexican-American youth already on probation for the sales of drugs. After we concluded our business there, we went back to Riverside County and raided his house in the city of Corona.
His House was a big two-story house in an upscale neighborhood, complete with a large swimming pool, a big playhouse containing a pool table and several commercial pinball machines, and a large kennel which held several Chow Chows and Rottweilers.
The house contained the finest furniture and kitchen appliances, a very valuable grandfather clock, and a large collection of crystal figurines. It also housed a big parrot. There were several AR-15s and pistols in the house. And the youthful drug dealer – yes, he was only 17 – had two Corvettes, one of which was custom-made for him, and a top-of-the-class pickup truck.
The youth had no visible means of employment. He did not inherit any money. So, it was obvious that all of his assets were obtained through the manufacture and distribution of meth. Thus, the real property, the two Corvettes and the pickup truck, the guns, the dogs, and everything in the main house, including the parrot, and everything in the play house was seized.
When his probation officer was contacted and asked if he ever considered how his client accumulated such wealth when he had no visible means of employment, he replied, “Hmm, that did seem somewhat strange.”
I do not agree with this particular court decision. The Indiana man was selling heroin out of his Range Rover and since the $42,000 vehicle was an instrument used for the sale of illegal drugs, the cops should have been able to seize it, the maximum fine of $10,000 notwithstanding.
But I do strongly agree that asset forfeitures should never be used as a revenue producer for a city or county. It has been reported that several cities have used the asset forfeiture laws to seize the cars of drivers exceeding the speed limit by only 5mph. That is simply unforgivable!
I firmly believe the government should never be permitted to seize any assets earned by hard-working, law abiding citizens. However, the seizure of property gained through the sales of illegal drugs should be fair game for forfeiture. So, should the police be able to seize the assets of drug dealers? My answer is a resounding yes, yes, yes!
Those who oppose any and all asset forfeitures by the government should not celebrate the court’s ruling because seizures like the one in Corona, if challenged, would probably stand up in the courts. It’s the unreasonable seizures made to raise revenue that Justice Ginsburg and the other justices had in mind. It will be up to the lower courts to decide which seizures violate the 8th Amendment and which ones don’t.