An Indiana man whose $35,000 Land Rover was seized after his arrest for selling $400 in heroin will get to keep the vehicle, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday, more than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with him in a key ruling on criminal fines.
The state court’s 4-1 decision in favor of Tyson Timbs, of Marion, comes after a legal fight that began in 2013 and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling 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.
Indiana’s high court rejected arguments from the state attorney general’s office that the vehicle seizure was proper because it was used to commit a crime and that the vehicle’s value wasn’t “extraordinarily high” when compared with the $30,000 Timbs had spent on his heroin addiction.
“We conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the underlying dealing offense and his culpability for the vehicle’s corresponding criminal use,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the majority opinion.
Timbs bought the Land Rover with some of the $70,000 in life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs drove the Land Rover not only to the drug deal for which he was arrested, but also for thousands of miles on trips between Marion and Richmond for the heroin that fed his addiction and burned through much of the rest of the life insurance money.
Timbs pleaded guilty to drug dealing charges and was sentenced to a year of home detention. His attorneys argued that the loss of the vehicle hurt his ability to hold a job after he completed drug treatment programs.
Timbs, who has been represented by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice, has said his heroin addiction began after he was prescribed hydrocodone for foot pain.
“Today’s ruling is an important victory for property rights across Indiana,” said Sam Gedge, an Institute for Justice attorney representing Tyson. “As the Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized, Indiana’s campaign to take Tyson’s car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail. The State of Indiana has spent nearly a decade trying to confiscate a vehicle from a low-income recovering addict. No one should have to spend eight years fighting the government just to get back their car.”
The Indiana court’s ruling upheld a county judge’s decision last year that returned the Land Rover to Timbs. The ruling called Timbs “the unusual claimant who could overcome the high hurdle of showing gross disproportionality.”
The state attorney general’s office didn’t immediately reply Thursday to a request for comment.
The court compared the case’s long legal journey to Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale in the novel “Moby Dick” and concluded by saying the state’s “seven-plus-year pursuit for the white Land Rover comes to an end.”
In a statement, Timbs said the work by police and prosecutors to keep the vehicle never made 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 probation officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work?” Timbs said. “I hope that, finally, the government will move on and let me move on too.”