Sixth Amendment Right to Choose Counsel Violated When Government Froze Defendant’s Assets

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ May 19, 2016

Sixth-Amendment

On March 30th, the Supreme Court decided the case of Luis v. United States, holding that pretrial restraint of a defendant’s legitimate, lawfully obtained assets was a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to retain counsel of choice.

At issue in the case was a federal statute allowing the government to freeze a defendant’s assets before trial if the defendant was accused of violating federal health care or banking laws. The assets could be seized if they were obtained as a result of the crime, traceable to the crime, or were “other property of equivalent value.” The defendant had allegedly amassed roughly $45 million as a result of health care crimes and had already spent almost all of it. Consequently, the Government obtained a court order to prevent the defendant from dissipating the roughly $2 million she had left so she could pay criminal forfeitures upon conviction. Both sides acknowledged that this court order would prevent the defendant from using her own money, which was untainted by the criminal acts, which in turn prevented the defendant from being able to hire the defense counsel of her choice. The Supreme Court, overturning a decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, held that this was a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to hire the attorney of her choice.

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, explaining that it was workable to differentiate between illegally obtained money and the untainted money that the defendant would need to pay her lawyer, and consequently the Government could not freeze all of these assets. While admitting that the interest of the Government in preserving funds with which the defendant would pay criminal forfeitures was important, the Court explained that the defendant’s right to the counsel of her choice was more important to a fair and effective criminal justice system. Further, the Court held that rendering a defendant indigent through a court order would force them to rely on overworked and underpaid public defenders, which would inevitably render the protection of the Sixth Amendment less effective. This problem would then be exacerbated if more statutes were created to allow the government to freeze assets of defendants accused of all kinds of crimes.

Further, Justice Thomas explained in a concurring opinion that the right to counsel would be meaningless if it did not protect a defendant’s right to use her own legally obtained assets to hire the private counsel of her choice. Because of this, the Government could effectively erode the right to choose one’s counsel granted by the Sixth Amendment if it were allowed to seize all of a defendant’s assets. Consequently, the Court vacated the lower court’s holding and ordered that the defendant be allowed to exercise her Sixth Amendment right to choose her attorney.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in its entirety, click here.

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