The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, April 29, 2020 1:00 am

After long legal bout, man gets seized SUV

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Tyson Timbs has his car back – finally, after a nearly decadelong legal quest that took him from a Grant County courtroom to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again. 

Police seized his $35,000 SUV when he was arrested in 2013, accused of selling about $500 worth of heroin. He tried for years to get the vehicle back, and the high court ruled last year that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states. 

A Grant County judge Monday ordered the Land Rover returned. 

That's about three years after Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Paul Mathias, a Fort Wayne native and former Allen Superior Court judge, co-authored an opinion with Judge Nancy Vaidik finding the application of the state's civil forfeiture law in the Timbs case was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bars the government from putting in place excessive bail or fines. 

The decision was overturned in 2017 by the Indiana Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court announced in 2018 it would take up the case. 

The indirect route to getting his vehicle back on the road was a long one for Timbs, who said Tuesday he was fighting “for thousands of people who are caught up in forfeiture lawsuits.”

“To me, the state's refusal to give back my car has never made sense,” he said in a statement. “If they're trying to rehabilitate me and help me help myself, why do you want to make things harder by taking away the vehicle I need to meet with my parole officer or go to a drug recovery program or go to work? Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and be contributing members of society.”

Timbs was charged in 2013 with dealing a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft after he used the Land Rover he bought using life insurance money from the death of his father to buy and transport heroin between Marion and Richmond.

Timbs pleaded guilty to the charges in 2015, court records show.

Police conducted controlled buys of heroin worth about $485 and the Land Rover was later seized.

A trial court ruled the vehicle was used to transport the drugs Timbs later sold but noted the seizure was “grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant's offense” and would be an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment.

Grant Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Todd issued a ruling this week.

“The forfeiture had a particularly negative effect on Timbs,” Todd wrote in a 14-page judgment. “First, it deprived him of his only asset. Second, it made it harder for him to maintain employment. Third, it also served as an impediment to his recovery from opiate dependency by making it more difficult for him to get to and from treatment programs.”

The case drew national attention from groups concerned about police abuses and organizations opposed to excessive regulation.

Timbs was represented in the case by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice. 

“(Monday's) ruling brings to a close the State of Indiana's seven-year crusade to confiscate one man's car,” said Institute for Justice senior attorney Wesley Hottot, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Tyson's case went through every level of the American judicial system – in some instances, twice. The state's relentless use of its forfeiture machine has been a deeply unjust exercise of power, and it underscores that civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.”

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