Feb. 20 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court, led by the recently-returned Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled unanimously Wednesday that state and local governments are limited in their ability to impose fines and seize property.
On her second day back on the high court bench, Ginsburg said protections against excessive fines are guaranteed in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and act as a shield to protect constitutional liberties.
"Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies ... Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence," Ginsburg wrote in the ruling.
The ruling stems from a case involving Tyson Timbs of Marion, Ind., who had his $42,000 Land Rover seized after he was arrested for selling narcotics. He pleaded guilty in Indiana court and the state wanted to take the vehicle because prosecutors said it was used to transport heroin.
The maximum fine for the charges Timbs faced was $10,000 -- one-fourth the value of the vehicle.
Civil groups got involved in the case out of a desire to limit forfeitures.
The case went before the high court because the Bill of Rights typically only applies to the federal government, not those at the state and local levels. The Supreme Court, though, has expanded the scope in recent years.
Justice Clarence Thomas said Wednesday civil forfeitures have become "widespread and highly profitable."
"The attention given to abusive fines ... along with the ubiquity of state excessive-fines provisions, demonstrates that the public continue[s] to understand the prohibition on excessive fines to be a fundamental right of American citizenship," he wrote in a concurring opinion.
"The right against excessive fines traces its lineage back in English law nearly a millennium, and from the founding of our country, it has been consistently recognized as a core right worthy of constitutional protection," he added. "As a constitutionally enumerated right understood to be a privilege of American citizenship, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines applies in full to the States."