When States Impose High Fines and Take You to the Cleaners

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Has a civil authority imposed a fine—or worse, threatened to (or actually) impounded your truck—because of an alleged violation? Has your vehicle or equipment been seized in a civil forfeiture action? Does the amount of the fine or penalty lodged against you seem to far outweigh any alleged offense? Does that fine or penalty seem to be designed for revenue-generating purposes than safety? Such government actions may be policing for profit in violation of your rights under the U.S. Constitution. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court recently recognized and reinforced those rights, giving strength to individuals’ efforts to resist such unconstitutional enforcement efforts.

There is legitimate law enforcement and then there is policing for profit—when officials enforce laws and impose penalties for the purpose of generating revenue rather than protecting the public. Although it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, there is no question that policing for profit is pernicious, pervasive, and unconstitutional. Revenue-motivated officials escape the scrutiny of this unconstitutional law enforcement by capitalizing on legal ambiguity and the reluctance or inability of victims to pursue legal recourse. Under the guise of protecting the public, policing for profit generates hundreds of millions of dollars at the local, state, and federal levels.

Policing for profit can take many different forms, but one of the most common is aggressive ticketing tactics for speeding and other motor vehicle violations. Other instances include civil fines for alleged overweight vehicle violations. The locality may also “offer” a discounted fine, or even refuse to let you move until you have paid the fine on the spot. Unfortunately, the financial burden and constitutional toll of policing for profit often fall greatest upon those individuals that utilize state and interstate highways. Truck drivers are ideal targets: they have neither the time nor interest in picking a legal fight, particularly when the ticket/fine is incurred far from home.

Fortunately, a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court has reinforced the rights of individuals subject to unconstitutional policing for profit. In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against the imposition of “cruel and unusual punishment”—including excessive fines—controls the actions of the individual states and their political subdivisions just as it does to the federal government.

The case, Timbs v. Indiana, demonstrates the length states will go to unfairly punish individuals and raise revenue. Tyson Timbs, an Indiana resident, received a lump sum payout from his father’s life insurance in early 2012. He used about $42,000 of the insurance proceeds to buy a Land Rover. After his father’s death, however, Mr. Timbs relapsed into a pre-existing substance abuse problem and spent most of the balance of the insurance money on illegal drugs. He was ultimately arrested for selling drugs, pled guilty, and was sentenced to a year of house arrest, five years’ probation, and fined $1,200. Unsatisfied with the punishment extracted, Indiana confiscated Mr. Timbs’ Land Rover in a civil forfeiture action because he had used the vehicle to transport drugs.

Mr. Timbs filed suit against the state for the Land Rover’s return, alleging that confiscation of the vehicle violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines. A Superior Court judge ruled in Timbs’ favor, finding that the value of the Land Rover was more than four times the maximum penalty Timbs could have been fined ($10,000) and thirty times more than the fines he actually paid. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Indiana reversed, holding that the Eighth Amendment applied only to federal actions and did not prohibit state or local governments from imposing excessive fines. In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Indiana and held that the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive fines apply to state and local governments as well.

Unfortunately, stories of excessive fines and punishments being imposed against drivers are all too common. The Supreme Court’s ruling highlights the unconstitutional practice of policing for profit and affirms a fundamental right of all individuals that may be subject to myriad forms of state and local aggressive fine and civil forfeiture practices. Truck drivers should both be vigilant about unconstitutional enforcement efforts and aware that they may have legal recourse. If you would like to know more about the ruling in Timbs v. Indiana and how it might help you, you may contact Kathleen Havener or Paul Cullen, Jr. at The Cullen Law Firm, PLLC.

Kathleen Balthrop Havener
kbh@cullenlaw.com

Paul D. Cullen, Jr.
pxc@cullenlaw.com

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