Americans are more divided on political issues today than at any time since the Civil War. This makes the Feb. 20 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Timbs v. Indiana a breath of fresh air.
In 2015, Indiana construction worker Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit a crime. The state of Indiana seized Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover, even though the maximum fine for his offense was $10,000. Timbs argued this violated his Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines.
And the Supreme Court agreed. Not only did it rule in Timbs’ favor, the court ruled 9-0.
During oral arguments in November, Indiana’s solicitor general got boxed into a corner by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who managed to get Indiana’s lawyer to argue the state should be allowed to seize a vehicle for driving 5 mph over the speed limit. This elicited laughter in the courtroom.
In the ruling, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg 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.” Ginsberg also cited her late and very conservative colleague Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote, “[It] makes sense to scrutinize governmental action more closely when the State stands to benefit.” Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring with Ginsberg, said the excessive-fines clause of our constitution “was taken verbatim from the English Bill of Rights of 1689 … which itself formalized a long-standing English prohibition on disproportionate fines.”
On this issue, the often-contrasting legal theories of con-servatives, progressives, Democrats, Republicans and libertarians are in one accord. Prohibitions against excessive fines are fundamental to liberty and deeply rooted in our traditions and history. The Magna Carta contained provisions prohibiting the king from wantonly seizing citizens’ property. It ends up we all agree that those old, dead, English guys were onto something when they developed rules that limited state power.
So Americans are united on some things. More important, whether Trump is re-elected, or Bernie Sanders ends up in the White House, whether the next Supreme Court justice is appointed by Mike Pence or Elizabeth Warren, American citizens can be pretty sure they will not have their automobiles confiscated for driving 5 miles over the speed limit.
We should be grateful: Citizens of Russia, China and North Korea have no such assurance.•
Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected]