The Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a Christiansburg man who sought to stop authorities from taking the pickup truck from which he’d sold oxycodone to a police informant.
The Virginia justices’ ruling came a day after — and seemed to pull in the opposite direction from — a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited states’ power to take money, vehicles and other property said to be connected to criminal activity. Called civil forfeitures, the seizures by prosecutors have long been controversial.
But while the federal ruling outranks the state’s decision, the two high courts based their opinions on separate legal questions.
That means that Brian Keith Hall’s 2014 Dodge Ram may still end up being taken by Montgomery County prosecutors, said Christiansburg attorney Steve Haga, who represented Hall during the 2017 Circuit Court hearings that prompted the Virginia Supreme Court’s action.
Reflecting on the excessive fines argument that carried the day at the federal level, Haga said he hadn’t thought to invoke the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment when he made his arguments to Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk.
“I frankly didn’t even think about that,” Haga said Thursday. “I guess since it wasn’t argued, it wasn’t appealed.”
Turk had ruled in Hall’s favor in 2017, saying that prosecutors could not take the truck. Prosecutors appealed, eventually sending the case to the Virginia Supreme Court. Its order Thursday reinstated the forfeiture action.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt did not immediately respond to a message asking if her office still wanted the truck. Haga guessed that prosecutors would soon be resuming efforts to seize it.
“They’re interested in these vehicles that don’t have liens on them,” Haga said.
In Circuit Court, Haga had focused on what he described as the lack of connection between Hall’s truck and the distribution of a Schedule II drug charge to which he pleaded guilty. Hall was sentenced to serve seven months behind bars.
Hall’s $35,000 truck had been purchased with a settlement Haga said he secured for Hall after Hall’s father was killed in a traffic wreck.
“It had nothing to do with drug-dealing. … He didn’t buy the truck with ill-gotten gains,” Haga said.
Prosecutors argued that it was enough that Hall drove to and from his meeting with the informant in the truck, and that he sold what Haga said was $60 worth of pills through the driver’s window.
While Turk was unconvinced that a “one-time incident” provided a “substantial connection” that would justify taking the truck, the Virginia Supreme Court wrote in its opinion that it saw matters differently.
“Nothing … states that forfeiture requires a showing of more than one episode of the illegal manufacture, sale, distribution, or possession of controlled substances,” Justice Arthur Kelsey wrote in the Virginia court’s opinion.
Whether Hall conducted one drug sale or many, Kelsey wrote, the use of the truck to get to and from the illegal act, and as a location for the drug sale itself, was “consequential and purposeful.”
The apparent lowering of the bar for forfeitures seemed counter to Wednesday’s ruling by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.
In the case of an Indiana man named Tyson Timbs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states’ civil forfeiture actions, like federal forfeiture actions, are limited by the federal Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Justice Ruth Ginsburg, writing the court’s opinion, said there was an “overwhelming” historical and logical argument for extending the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines to the states.
She cited examples that includes fines levied on political opponents and the post-Civil War Black Codes that used fines as part of structure intended to preserve white supremacy.
Timbs had pleaded guilty to dealing heroin — $225 worth, the New York Times reported this week — and was ordered to pay $1,200 in fines and costs. Prosecutor also took his $42,000 Land Rover, which he had bought with money from his father’s life insurance policy.
The seizure of the Land Rover had been upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court, which said the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause should not apply to the state. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the Indiana decision.
Haga, who was out of town visiting family when the Virginia Supreme Court issued its opinion Thursday, said that he had not yet spoken to Hall about what to do next.
“Maybe take the case to federal court,” Haga said.