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Supreme Court: Sixth Amendment Prevents Pretrial Seizure of Untainted Assets

On March 30, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that had permitted the federal government’s pretrial seizure of a criminal defendant’s untainted assets. Sila Luis, charged with health care fraud, possessed approximately $2 million in assets that were unconnected to her alleged crime, and wanted to use a portion of those funds to hire a criminal defense attorney. The government seized the funds, however, preventing her from retaining the attorney of her choice. The Supreme Court held that the seizure violated her Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

According to the Court, a “federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws,” citing 18 U.S.C. § 1345. Those assets include “(1) property ‘obtained as a result of’’ the crime, (2) property ‘traceable’ to the crime, and (3) other ‘property of equivalent value.’”

In the course of the criminal proceeding before the district court, the parties had stipulated “that an unquantified amount of revenue not connected to the indictment [had] flowed into some of the accounts,” and that Luis had “revenue not connected to the indictment” to pay for real property that she owned. Nevertheless, the district court issued an order freezing all of her assets, which was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit.

Although the government acknowledged that Luis had a right to counsel of her choice, federal prosecutors argued they wanted “to guarantee that those [frozen] funds will be available later to help pay for statutory penalties (including forfeiture of untainted assets) and restitution, should it secure convictions.”

However, the Supreme Court wrote that “the property here is untainted; i.e. it belongs to the defendant, pure and simple ... it differs from a robber’s loot, a drug seller’s cocaine, a burglar’s tools or other property associated with the planning, implementing, or concealing of a crime.”

 The Court said the cases cited by the prosecution concerned “tainted” funds, unlike the facts in this case, and that the government had not convincingly argued that it had an “interest” in Luis’ untainted assets sufficient to overcome the weight of her fundamental Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Supreme Court emphasized that there did not seem to be controlling precedent authorizing the pretrial forfeiture of a defendant’s untainted funds and property. Accordingly, the Court concluded “that the defendant in this case has a Sixth Amendment right to use her own ‘innocent’ property to pay a reasonable fee for the assistance of counsel.” Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion, while Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan dissented. See: Luis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1083 (2016). 

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Related legal case

Luis v. United States