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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana man who had his $40,000 Land Rover seized after a small-time drug deal isn't getting it back yet, even though the U.S. Supreme Court sided with him for a key ruling on excessive criminal fines earlier this year.
The Indiana Supreme Court said in a 4-1 ruling issued Monday that since Tyson Timbs of Marion used the Land Rover in committing a crime, a county judge must now consider whether its seizure is "grossly disproportional" punishment. Timbs was convicted of selling $400 worth of heroin, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in February that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.
The Indiana attorney general's office argued the vehicle seizure was proper because it was used in commission of a crime and that the vehicle's value should not be a factor.
Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, however, wrote in the court's opinion that the punishment's magnitude must be considered.
"The owner's economic means — relative to the property's value — is an appropriate consideration for determining that magnitude," she wrote. "To hold the opposite would generate a new fiction: that taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally."
Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of home detention but faced no prison time following his 2013 arrest. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he bought that year with some of $70,000 in life insurance money he received after his father died.
A Grant County judge had ruled that taking the vehicle was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carried a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana's top court said the U.S. Supreme Court had never before ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines applies to states.
Timbs, who has been represented by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, has said he's kicked his heroin addiction that began after being prescribed hydrocodone for foot pain. The Indiana justices raised the dilemma that Timbs not only drove the Land Rover to the drug deal for which he was arrested, but also for thousands of miles on trips between Marion and Richmond for the heroin buys that fed his addiction and burned through the rest of the life insurance money.
Timbs' lawyers said the Indiana Supreme Court decision helps curb abuse of property seizures and that they will keep seeking the return of his vehicle.
Timbs said in a statement that the ruling could help many people facing such seizures.
"To me it doesn't make sense; if they're trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?" he said. "You need a car to do all these things. Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and remain a contributing member of society."
The Indiana attorney general's office said it was studying the court's ruling and considering its next steps.
Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote in his dissent that the court should've directly decided whether to return the vehicle to Timbs. He also said he agreed with the state's argument that use of the vehicle in commission of a crime merited its seizure.
"In my view, that is where the excessiveness inquiry under the Eighth Amendment begins and ends — at least until the Supreme Court tells us otherwise," he wrote.