The Supreme Court Rules on Asset Forfeiture, and the news in criminal justice this week

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”

 In a unanimous ruling announced Wednesday, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to state governments. The ruling came in the case of Tyson Timbs, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by the state Indiana in connection to a crime that carried a maximum fine of $10,000. While the court ruled that the excessive fines clause was incorporated to local and state governments, the ruling was narrow and did not take a position on the seizure of Timbs’ vehicle, or address concerns about the use of forfeited funds by law enforcement agencies.

“…With bipartisan support and increased momentum to adopt criminal justice reforms, the 2019 Legislature should act to bring more fairness and effectiveness to Minnesota’s probation system.”

New polling from the Justice Action Network showed that 82% of Minnesotans supported standardizing probation guidelines, and 61% favored a five-year cap on felony probation. The Star Tribune editorial board cited the polling in an editorial in favor of recently-introduced probation reforms, as well as measures to encourage alternatives to incarceration. In addition to support for changes to the probation system, the poll showed that 74% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a county prosecutor who backed the reforms.  

“Oklahoma’s occupational licensing laws have grown beyond that is necessary to ensure the safety of our communities.”

In an op-ed in The Oklahoman, Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Tim Head, the American Conservative Union Foundation’s David Safavian and FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye urged lawmakers to reduce barriers to employment for people with criminal records. More than 40 lower-income occupations require a license in Oklahoma and, on average, the license costs $234 in fees and requires 399 days of education. Legislators are currently considering House Bills 1373 and 2134, which would reform the state’s occupation licensing laws. 

“…Open and transparent discovery promotes the interests of the criminal justice community, from the prosecutors and police to the accused.”

 New Yorkers United for Justice released a new ad aimed at educating people on the need for discovery reform. The ad features Michael Morton, whose wrongful conviction helped spur Texas to change its discovery process to prevent prosecutors from withholding evidence. New York’s current law allows prosecutors to restrict access to information, including police reports, witness statements and grand jury testimony until just before a trial begins. Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal included language backing the expansion of pretrial file-sharing.

“We can take a cue from policymakers in states around the country, as well as those in the federal government, who have shown that rethinking mandatory minimum policies can result in reductions in both crime and prison populations.”

A study from the James Madison Institute examines how Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which were designed to target traffickers, have ensnared low-level dealers. Trafficking thresholds include the weight of non-controlled substances included in prescription pills, and create wide disparities in the length of mandatory sentences: a fifteen-year minimum sentence is mandated for possession of the equivalent of 9,066,667 marijuana joints, 1,607,143 lines of cocaine, or 22 hydrocodone pills. According to the report, Florida spends more than $100 million annually to incarcerate drug offenders who are serving mandatory minimum sentences.