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Can the feds freeze my assets to prevent me from hiring a lawyer?

Should the federal government be able to freeze all of a criminal defendant's assets prior to trial, thereby preventing her from hiring her attorney of choice? That's a question the United States Supreme Court recently addressed. And its answer may surprise you.

In 2012, a federal grand jury charged Sila Luis with defrauding Medicare of $45 million, of which allegedly $2 million was left. The government brought criminal charges against Ms. Luis and simultaneously filed a civil action seeking to freeze her assets in advance of the criminal trial.

The kicker? The government moved to freeze all of her assets, not just those traceable to the alleged fraud.

Luis argued that freezing all of her assets violated her Sixth Amendment right to hire the attorney of her choice. The district court disagreed. While recognizing that its ruling could prevent Luis from obtaining her lawyer of choice, it held “there is no Sixth Amendment right to use untainted, substitute assets to hire counsel.” The Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court's decision and Luis petitioned for certiorari.

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court vacated the Eleventh Circuit's decision and held that pretrial restraint of a criminal defendant’s untainted assets does violate the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice. In its analysis, the Supreme Court balanced the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to secure her counsel of choice with personal funds unrelated to the criminal charges against the government’s interest in restitution and punishment. In the end, the Court found the government’s interests to “lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”

The Court also found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Notably, the Court recognized the government's position of seizing all assets had "no obvious stopping place" and "could well erode the right to counsel to a considerably greater extent than we have so far indicated."

The Luis decision is an important victory for the Sixth Amendment and criminal defendants who often find their hands tied financially due to federal asset forfeiture proceedings. Following Luis, the federal government can no longer freeze all of a criminal defendant's assets so as to prevent them from hiring their attorney of choice. In a time when conservatism rules and defendants' rights erode at an alarming rate, it's refreshing to see the Supreme Court put the brakes on the government's unchecked use of civil asset forfeiture as a weapon in criminal cases.

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