George Pyle: Supreme Court limits a state’s ability to take your stuff. Just like George Will - and John Hancock - said it should.

FILE - This undated file photo shows John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence, which was formally signed by 56 members of Congress beginning Aug. 2, 1776. National Public Radio marked Independence Day on July 4th, 2017, by tweeting the entire declaration, but it seems some Twitter users didn’t recognize what they were reading. Some of the founders’ criticisms of King George III were met with angry responses from supporters of President Donald Trump, who seemed to believe the tweets were a reference to the current president. Others were under the impression NPR was trying to provoke Trump with the tweets. (AP Photo, File)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been under the weather lately. So when she came back to work at the Supreme Court of the United States after cancer surgery, they gave her a relatively easy job to do, just to warm up.

Yes, she said Wednesday for a unanimous Supreme Court, it is unconstitutional as all hell for the state of Indiana to have seized the $42,000 Land Rover of a convicted drug dealer, a loss worth 35 times the amount of the fine imposed for the offense of trafficking 2 grams of heroin, as part of the “civil forfeiture” part of his sentence.

‘Excessive fines’ ban applies to states, Supreme Court says — Mark Sherman | The Associated Press

"Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.

"The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

“Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines ‘out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence’ because fines are a source of revenue. ...”

George F. Will called it back in November.

Lucrative law enforcement will become lawless - George F. Will | The Washington Post

" ... Come Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning whether this violated the Eighth Amendment, which says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (Emphasis added.)

“The seizure was done under Indiana’s version of civil forfeiture laws, which allow governments to seize property used in the commission of a crime. As they are often used, such laws are incentives for abusive governments, because the entity that seizes the property frequently is allowed to profit by keeping or selling it. Lucrative law enforcement will become lawless. ...”

Timbs v. Indiana — In The Supreme Court of the United States

" ... Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and ‘[e]xcessive bail,’ the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,’ with ‘dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.’ ... The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. ..."

There is still a lot of work to be done on working out all the different versions of civil forfeiture. Getting to the right answer — which is that the whole practice is evil and is the exact government abuse that led John Hancock (who really was a smuggler) to sign his name in really big letters at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence — may take a while.

What’s good is that the court put limits on the use of the practice in a case where the person who had his property taken had actually been convicted of a crime. In many other cases, no conviction is needed before the cops can take your car, your money, even your house.

So Wednesday’s case might give hope to those seeking to limit or end the practice. Viz:

Civil forfeiture is worse than its proponents proclaim — Jim Bradshaw and Connor Boyack | For The Tribune, Oct. 28, 2018

" ... It’s understandable that prosecutors want an easier way to do their job, but defending a highly problematic practice like civil asset forfeiture is a difficult thing to do. We instead agree with the vast majority who find this system inherently troubling — the result not of a few bad apples, but of a disease that infects the entire crop."

And it might undermine the case of those who want to keep it. For example:

Civil forfeiture is a useful tool in fighting crime — John W. Huber (U.S. Attorney or Utah) | For The Tribune

" ... Although stories of forfeiture abuse by a few corrupt officials exist, those stories are also outliers. Eliminating an essential law enforcement tool like forfeiture because of a few bad actors nationwide would be like banning skiing at Utah resorts because a tiny fraction of skiers die each year in America. ..."

This is a long way from over.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.