Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the prohibition on excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is incorporated against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.  Although it involved a civil asset forfeiture of a vehicle arising from the petitioner’s criminal conviction, the decision could provide a new weapon for consumer financial services providers facing fines and penalties sought by State attorneys general and regulators.

The Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”  In its decision, the Supreme Court cited  language from its 1998 decision which held that in rem forfeitures are fines for purposes of the Eighth Amendment.  In that decision, the Court wrote that the phrase “nor excessive fines imposed” in the Eighth Amendment prohibition “limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, ‘as punishment for some offense.’”

Since the Supreme Court did not reach the question of whether the forfeiture resulted in an excessive fine that violated the Eighth Amendment, the decision does not discuss the standards for determining whether a particular fine is unconstitutionally excessive.  It should be noted, as the Supreme Court did in its opinion, that “all 50 states have a constitutional provision prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality.”  While such state provisions would be available to a consumer financial services provider, they might not be interpreted in a manner that is as protective as the Eighth Amendment prohibition.  (Perhaps that is the reason that the petitioner in Timbs did not challenge the forfeiture under the Indiana Constitution.)  Accordingly, the Supreme Court’s decision now gives providers a potential second line of attack when facing fines and penalties sought by State attorneys general and regulators.

In November 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, which presents the issue of whether the prohibition on excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment.   Although it involves a civil asset forfeiture arising from the petitioner’s criminal conviction, the case could have significant implications for consumer financial services companies facing fines and penalties sought by State attorneys general and regulators.

In this week’s podcast, we review the litigation and lower court decisions and discuss how the case could provide companies with a constitutional basis for challenging such fines and penalties as State attorneys general and regulators ramp up their supervisory and enforcement activity to fill the void created by a less aggressive CFPB.

To listen to the podcast, click here.