It got little attention on such a busy news day, but the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on Wednesday for property rights.
The court unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines in cases of individuals charged or convicted of a crime applies not only to the federal government but also to the states’ seizure of property and other assets.
The particular case involved someone who was convicted for dealing drugs. Indiana authorities seized and auctioned off his Land Rover, even though it was not purchased with drug money, on grounds that he used it to commit crimes by driving it while dealing drugs (with that kind of tenuous connection, they could have seized his sneakers, too.)
He challenged the seizure, but the state Supreme Court ruled against him on grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court never explicitly said that the Eighth Amendment applies to states — only to the federal government. Well, now they have. Talk about things that should have gone without saying!
Asset forfeiture laws were originally well-intentioned and meant to ensure that criminals didn’t profit from their crimes.
But over the years, some places started abusing them as a method of raising revenue by seizing and auctioning private property that had little or no connection with criminal behavior, leaving citizens with scant recourse or financial resources to fight it.
As this story notes, the lack of Eighth Amendment protections on the state level also led to abuses such as heavy fines for tiny infractions, such as using the wrong house paint colors or Halloween decorations.
During oral arguments of the case, Justice Breyer got Indiana’s solicitor general to admit that the state could conceivably seize someone’s car for driving five miles over the speed limit, which sparked laughter in the court.
This is a welcome and long overdue ruling. Too many young people (some of them recently elected to Congress) have no concept of the foundational importance of property rights. They seem fine with the idea of government being able to take as much of the fruits of other people’s labors as it wants, as long as it promises to “redistribute” other people’s money in the form of free stuff.
They need to learn the wise old saying that a government that’s big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.