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Timbs case returns to state court

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

The case of a Marion man and his $42,000 Land Rover, which was seized by law enforcement, returned to the Indiana Supreme Court last week.

After the U.S. Supreme Court heard Tyson Timbs’s case last fall, the justices ruled against the State of Indiana and sent the case back to the state’s highest court.

Timbs drove his brand-new Land Rover to one of two drug deals with buyers that turned out to be undercover Joint Effort Against Narcotics (JEAN) Team detectives, resulting in his 2013 arrest and conviction on dealing and conspiracy to commit theft charges.

The state asked to be allowed to take possession of his car through a legal process called civil forfeiture. Judge Jeffrey Todd of Grant County Superior Court I said no, arguing that seizing the vehicle violated the constitutional protection against excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled that the excessive fines protection does applies to state civil forfeiture cases – the State of Indiana’s case had been that it did not – but it will be up to the Indiana Supreme Court to decide if seizing the car counts as an excessive fine. That was the issue discussed at Friday’s oral arguments.

Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, arguing for the state, maintained that what matters is whether the property was used to commit a crime. Fisher argued judges shouldn’t consider how valuable the property is.

“It would be good for the court to avoid a legal standard that would encourage people to drive their fancy cars to drug deals,” Fisher told the justices.

He maintained the State of Indiana’s position that the state could seize a Bugatti for driving 5 mph over the speed limit, since the car was used to commit a crime.

If the state did start seizing luxury cars for minor speeding violations, it would be up to the residents of Indiana and legislators to change the laws, Fisher said.

Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, which represented Timbs before the U.S. Supreme Court and on Friday, made the case that a car is “a lifeline” and “a uniquely valuable piece of property,” since transportation is key to holding down a job and making it to medical and mental health appointments.

“It’s not just wrong, it’s incredibly dangerous. Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest dangers to property rights today,” Gedge told the Chronicle-Tribune. “The state’s flagship argument is that the government can take anything from anybody if they can show it was connected to the crime.”

Timbs won an initial appeal in the state appeals court before the Indiana Supreme Court reversed that decision in 2017. Despite the local and appeals courts, which both found the seizure excessive, Timbs has not had possession of his car since it was taken in 2013.

The state supreme court’s decision will determine whether he will ever get it back.

Fisher did not respond to a request for comment.