SC rules on excessive fines; not an issue here, prosecutor says

(MGN/file)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) In a ruling published Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that excessive fines and forfeitures imposed in federal criminal cases are unconstitutional and went on to say the rules apply to state cases, as well.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her first day back on the bench, wrote the opinion and read a summary of the order aloud from the bench.

The ruling also could buttress efforts to limit confiscations by local law enforcement agencies of property belonging to someone suspected of a crime, the proceeds from which police and prosecutors keep.

But it’s not a direct issue in Texas, McLennan County Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham says, because the Texas Constitution has its own prohibition of excessive fines and bonds.

Article I, Section 13 of the Texas Constitution, adopted February 15, 1876, reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted. All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law.”

The document’s first sentence generally tracks the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted").

“We don’t see a lot of forfeitures around here,” Bell County Chief Deputy Sheriff Chuck Cox said.

Forfeitures in Bell County, Cox explained, require a court hearing in a civil court and are only finalized with an order of the court.

“Forfeitures usually involve drug activity,” Cox said, “and what we have to prove to prevail in court is that the property being forfeited actually benefited the drug transactions the suspect was charged with.

“If we arrest a suspect on a drug charge and we find a significant amount of illegal drugs in the vehicle he’s driving, it’s not too hard to make the connection between the vehicle and the drugs.”

But, Cox said, in the case published by the Supreme Court it is obvious that the value of the property forfeited far exceeded the fine the suspect would have been assessed, and that made a case for excessive fines.

“I believe the Supreme Court did the right thing,” Cox said.

The Supreme Court’s decision was based on an appeal from Indiana concerning Tyson Timbs, an Indiana man who was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to selling less than $400 worth of an illegal drug.

But following his plea, the State of Indiana forfeited a $42,000 Land Rover SUV that the state said was used to transport the drugs.

An Indiana appeals court denied the forfeiture, as did another appeals court in a subsequent filing, but the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed the lower courts’ decisions and affirmed the forfeiture.

At issue was whether the state imposed a fine or forfeiture that was considered excessive, and because the state forfeited a vehicle that was worth more than four times what Timbs’ fine would normally be for such a crime, the high court ruled it excessive.

“(B)ut the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions,” the state court’s opinion reads.

The justices saw it differently.

“The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause,” the high court’s opinion reads.

“The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates and renders applicable to the States Bill of Rights protections ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ or ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’

And the opinion says the Constitution works that way for good reason and has a lengthy precedent.

“The prohibition embodied in the Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day.”

“Such fines undermine other liberties. They can be used to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue,” the opinion says.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and from the founding of our country, it has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection. As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the States.

In a separate issue decided the day before, on Tuesday, the court was divided over the case of a Texas convict who claimed his intellectual disability makes him ineligible for the death penalty.

It was the second time the high court reversed the ruling that Bobby James Moore could be executed despite his cognitive deficits, citing a majority of justices reported Texas relied on "lay stereotypes of the intellectually disabled."

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch opposed the court’s ruling, and Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's unsigned opinion.

In 2017 the court’s original decision on the matter the court noted that Texas, which leads the nation in executions, must not be allowed to use a “decades-old definition of intellectual disability to determine who lives and who dies.”

The 2017 decision was sent back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but that court refused to change its original ruling.