On Wednesday, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution’s prohibition on Excessive Fines applies to the States. In the case, Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $225 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer. He was sentenced to one year of home detention, five years of probation, which included a court-supervised addiction program, and fined for costs and fees of $1203.00. The State also hired a private law firm to go after Timbs’ vehicle—a $42,000 Land Rover that he had purchased with proceeds from his father’s life insurance policy. And the Indiana Supreme Court held that forfeiture was appropriate because the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines did not apply to the States.
The Supreme Court traced the history of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines all the way back to at least 1215 to the Magna Carta which required that economic sanctions “be proportioned to the wrong” and not so large “as to deprive [an offender] of his livelihood.” Protections against exorbitant fines, the Court noted, has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines had been used to chill the speech of political enemies, and even absent a political motive, fines may be employed as a source of state revenue.
The Eighth Amendment clearly prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive economic sanctions. The question in Timbs was whether the prohibition also applies to the States after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under Supreme Court precedent, a right is incorporated and applies against the states if it is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The Court found that the protection against excessive punitive sanctions met both prongs of the incorporation analysis. As a result, the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause also applies against the States and prohibits them from levying excessive economic sanctions.
Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, agreeing with the result in the case, but arguing that the appropriate vehicle for incorporation was not the Due Process Clause but the Privileges and Immunities Clause.