A federal ruling in an Indiana drug case could affect property seizures in Arkansas drug cases, officials say.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines in reference to property seizures that exceed fines imposed by the courts in criminal cases applies to the states as well as federal law. In light of this ruling, Sebastian County Prosecutor Dan Shue said property seized during a statewide drug operation in 2018 may face litigation.
The ruling was in reference to Timbs vs. Indiana, in which police seized and kept a $40,000 Land Rover from drug dealer Tyson Timbs. The Supreme Court handed down the ruling after an Indiana judge ruled the seizure disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which has a maximum fine of $10,000.
Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in September executed Operation Task Force Arkansas, which resulted in hundreds of arrests and the seizure of more than 1,000 pounds of drugs throughout the state. Authorities during the operation seized 32 vehicles, according to the DEA news release.
"Could those (cases) have been litigated at this point? Some of them could have been, but some of them, if they’re really fighting about it, probably haven’t been decided," Shue said. "The next thing we’ll see is, the people defending them will raise the Timbs case and say, 'Look, you have to analyze it in regard to Timbs vs. Indiana.'"
Though Article 2 of Section 9 in the Arkansas Constitution states excessive fines shall not be imposed under state law, Shue said the federal ruling imposes a higher standard on Arkansas and all other states.
"We would have to look at (property seizures) — and we already do — and say, 'Is the seizure grossly disproportionate to the crime?'" Shue said. "It’s a common sense thing — we were doing that already — but obviously, this puts a new measure on all other state forfeitures."
Western District of Arkansas U.S. Attorney Duane "DAK" Kees, who mentioned he was not surprised by the federal ruling in the Timbs case, said authorities found probable cause in the operation to seize the vehicles as tools used to commit the crimes. He said authorities can seize such vehicles and cash proceeds from drug deals when making an arrest.
Kees also said Western District officials have never disproportionately seized property at the level seen in the Timbs case.
"After this came down, I called up our people and asked, 'Have we ever seized (four) times the fine?' they said, 'No, we have never done that,'" he said. "We’re going to be staying within those bounds of reasonableness, but eventually, the courts are going to tell us what reasonable is."
Kees said he anticipates Arkansas courts will eventually come up with a set ratio to determine what is disproportionate to fines. And though Kees' office answers to federal law, he said his officials will still pay attention to this ruling.
"We’re still going to go about business as usual. We’ll just understand that now it applies," Kees said. "For this office, we’re still under the assertion that it still has to be reasonable."
"For non-lawyers, it makes sense," Shue said of the Timbs ruling. "It should not be grossly disproportionate."