A recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion that the constitutional protection from excessive fines and fees applies to local governments could inspire new legal challenges in Arizona, an attorney from the conservative Institute for Justice said.
On Feb. 20, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of an Indiana man, Tyson Timbs, who’d lost his $42,000 Land Rover to civil asset forfeiture after he was arrested for selling about $200 worth of heroin.
The court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits excessive fines, applies to state and local government. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s opinion, “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” that excessive fines can be used to “retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies,” and that they can be used “in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”
Timbs was represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal organization. Paul Avelar, an attorney with the group’s Arizona office, said the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Timbs case is unlikely to have an immediate effect here, given that Arizona courts have long recognized that the Eighth Amendment applies locally, and that it includes not only fees but civil asset forfeiture. Gov. Doug Ducey in 2017 signed legislation that tightened the rules for law enforcement agencies to seize property they allege is connected to crimes.
But that doesn’t mean the ruling won’t reverberate in Arizona. Avelar said Supreme Court rulings tend to push previously ignored issues to the forefront and encourage lawyers to litigate things that they hadn’t considered before. That may well happen in Arizona as a result of the Timbs ruling, he said.
“Any time the Supreme Court issues a decision, it does affect the way that lawyers think about claims or argue claims, move claims forward, things like that,” Avelar said. “So, I would expect to see more litigation about this issue in Arizona.”
While no individual laws or policies stood out to Avelar as ripe for litigation, he said the cumulative fines and fees that defendants often face in Arizona could be susceptible to legal challenges. Many relatively low-level misdemeanors carry financial penalties by law. But defendants also face other mandatory court costs, programs with enrollment fees, and other assessments.
“These things add up,” Avelar said. “The question will become, given all of these other assessments, at what point do these things become excessive when compared to the necessarily low level of offense that comes from some of these misdemeanors?”
Avelar noted that an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found similar problems plaguing Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the protests and riots that followed a police officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The report found that the city and its police department relied heavily on code enforcement to generate revenue.