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Why It Took One Man 7 Years to Get His Car Back (From The Government)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 9, 2024 3:03 am

Why It Took One Man 7 Years to Get His Car Back (From The Government)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 9, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Elyia Somin tells the story of Timbs v. Indiana and the 7 year game of court pingpong it took for one man to get his Land Rover back.

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I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

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Connecting changes everything. And we return to our American stories. And now it's time for another rule of law story, which is a part of our rule of law series where we showcase what happens in the absence and the presence of the rule of law in our lives.

Things like property rights that we just take for granted, courts in an independent judiciary, separation of powers, which gives meaning to that independence of the judiciary and contract rights, things that in other countries, well, good luck. And by the way, that rule of law extends to all of us, good and bad and in between. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story of a man who violated what would seem to be a clear cut law and the long winded case that he became wrapped up in as a result. In 2012, Tyson Timms found himself on the receiving end of a decent amount of cash following the death of his father. He promptly bought a nice car and a year later drove out to sell some drugs to undercover cops.

Here's Ilya Soman with the rest of the story. So he was caught and he was charged with small scale drug offense. He admitted that he did commit a crime. But when he drove to this transaction, he was driving his Land Rover SUV, which, according to estimates, was worth something like between $40,000 and $42,000. So the state of Indiana seized the Land Rover through asset forfeiture. But what's asset forfeiture?

And why did law enforcement decide to leave Tyson without his wheels over a drug offense? Asset forfeiture is a practice whereby government can confiscate property that was used in a crime, such as a car or in some cases even something as major as a house. And often they can do it even if the owner of the property was never convicted of any crime. And indeed, even if he or she was never charged with it.

So you get examples like the police will stop someone's car, perhaps for a minor traffic violation. Then they'll ask to search the car and then they find some money in the car. Say you're transporting cash, as some people do.

The police might decide, it seems likely that this money was acquired in a drug transaction or some kind of other illegal transaction. They take the car potentially and the money as well. Similarly, if, for instance, you lent your car to a friend and then the friend was suspected of driving it to buy illegal drugs, then your car could be confiscated, even though you may not even have known that your friend was going to use it for that purpose. And sometimes that can happen, even if the friend himself never got charged with anything.

And there are many, many examples like this. They vary somewhat by state. But the basic idea is that the government can seize property that they think might have been used in a crime. In many cases, in most states, they don't have to prove that it actually happened.

They certainly don't have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, the procedures in many states are such that once they seize your property for asset forfeiture, the ordinance in effect falls on you to prove that you're innocent or that the property wasn't used in a crime. And often the cost of getting the property back is actually more valuable than the property itself. So if they seize something that's worth $500 or $1,000 or even $2,000 or $3,000, as is often the case, in order to litigate the issue and get it back, even if you're successful, you may have to pay a lawyer more money than the property is worth.

And it may take you many weeks or many months to even get a hearing about it, much less get the property back. Now at this point, you may be thinking, big deal. Guy buys expensive car. Guy drives the car to sell drugs to undercover cops.

Guy gets punished. Who cares about his car? This seems just. But the issue here isn't the taking of the car. It's that there was no due process to take it. And law enforcement can sell assets seized via forfeiture and add it to their budgets. And if you want your stuff back, you have to take them to court using money you probably don't have.

There's no accountability. There's no rule of law. So Tyson went to court. And Tyson Timms, represented by the Institute for Justice, they argued that this seizure violated the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment is best known for forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, but it also forbids excessive fines.

And thus began a game of pinball for Tyson Timms and the Institute for Justice between court systems. So this case is unusual even by the standards of federal Supreme Court cases that not only did it reach the federal Supreme Court, but there were also three separate Indiana State Supreme Court decisions. And there are not many Supreme Court cases historically which are like that.

That's extremely unusual. And the case raised two important issues that the Supreme Court had never previously resolved. One is whether the excessive fines clause even applies to state and local governments at all as opposed to just the federal government.

Over a long period of time, the Supreme Court has gradually decided that nearly every other part of the Bill of Rights, with a few exceptions, applies to state and local governments and not just to federal government. But they had never decided this with respect to the excessive fines clause. So when the case initially reached the state Supreme Court of Indiana, the state Supreme Court said, well, this doesn't apply to the states, or if it does, we, the Supreme Court of Indiana, can't say that it does. Only the federal Supreme Court can make that decision. The other big issue is let's assume the excessive fines clause does apply to state governments. Do asset forfeitures qualify as excessive fines?

Because maybe asset forfeitures just aren't fines at all. That's another thing that the state of Indiana argued in this case. So when the case got to the Supreme Court, the court actually showed a rare degree of unanimity. All nine justices, both liberal and conservative, concluded that the clause does in fact apply to state governments and local governments as well as the federal government.

Everybody, I think, expected that outcome. It would have been very surprising if the court had said, no, this is the one part of the Bill of Rights that doesn't apply against the states. Secondly, they also ruled that at least some asset forfeitures can indeed be fines, excessive fines. And therefore, if they're big enough, they could be struck down as excessive. And they rejected the argument that forfeitures just aren't fines at all because the state did argue that this is just an attempt to seize property used for illegal purposes. It's not really a punishment of the person who committed the offense, or maybe even in many cases didn't commit any offense. And I think the court ruled correctly that fines and forfeitures are sufficiently similar that many, if not all, asset forfeitures can in fact qualify as fines. But the court left open the issue of what is it exactly that makes an asset forfeiture excessive. And this issue has ended up in the lower courts with the result that even the specific case of Tyson Timms actually made it back to the Indiana Supreme Court two more times. One time where the Indiana Supreme Court set up a test for how they think the excessiveness of the fine should be determined. And then a second case where even though the test that they shut up, I think it was clear that Tyson Timms should win under that test because among other things, the value of the land rover is about four times the maximum fine that you could get for a criminal conviction in Indiana for the type of illegal drug transaction that he attempted. But nonetheless, the state of Indiana, much like Inspector Javert in way Miserable, they continued their single-minded pursuit of the land rover.

They didn't want to give it up. So they continued to litigate the case. So it went back to the state Supreme Court yet again. This is the third time the case went to the Indiana State Supreme Court. And in that instance, the Indiana State Supreme Court finally ruled that Tyson Timms could in fact get his land rover back.

So after a legal battle that lasted some seven years, Tyson Timms did in fact recover the land rover and is now happily driving it. Now most cases don't go through that long a process or are that costly. I don't know how much money IJ spent litigating this case, but it is probably in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars or even more. It's obviously more than the value of the land rover, even though the land rover is a fairly expensive and valuable vehicle. As I said before, it's worth about $40,000. That said, the typical asset forfeiture probably involves amounts in the range of property worth $500 or $1,000. And even the lawyer's fees for a more conventional case will easily exceed that. That's actually a more general problem we have in this country that legal services for small scale losses of this kind very often outstrip what you can gain from getting back what you lost. In the Timms case, it's pretty obvious that Tyson Timms could not have won this case without getting excellent pro bono representation from the Institute for Justice, which represented him for free from start to finish. And they of course weren't solely interested in the particular vehicle at stake in this case.

They wanted to set a general precedent. And a great job on the production by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks to Elia Soman for telling us this story. He's a law professor at George Mason University. Check out his book Freedom Move, Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.

And you can find that at Amazon.com. Tyson Timms case, another installment in our great rule of law series here on Our American Story. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts. It is Ryan here, and I have a question for you. What do you do when you win? Like, are you a fist pumper, a woohoo-er, a hand clapper, a high fiver? I kind of like to high five, but if you want to hone in on those winning moves, check out Chumba Casino. At Chumbacacino.com, choose from hundreds of social casino style games for your chance to redeem serious cash prizes.

There are new game releases weekly plus free daily bonuses. So don't wait. Start having the most fun ever at Chumbacacino.com.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-09 04:50:14 / 2024-05-09 04:55:47 / 6

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