SCOTUS Stands Up for the Sixth Amendment

We’ve asked this question before. What if the government charged you with a crime, and you wanted to defend yourself but couldn’t—not because you didn’t have any money, but because the government had blocked all access to it?

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said the government can freeze your money before trial if there’s probable cause to believe the money’s traceable to the alleged crime, even if you have no other funds for legal fees.

Tough cookies if the government can drive trucks through a hole the size of probable cause. That’s your problem; the presumption of innocence be damned.

But last month, the Court was called on to decide whether the government could take the extra step of freezing assets that you need to fund a defense even if they’re not traceable to the alleged crime.

This time, the answer was no. Here’s how it went down.

The government had accused the defendant of a $45 million Medicare fraud, but when she was indicted, she had a mere $2 million to her name, which (the government agreed) included clean funds unrelated to the alleged fraud. The defendant wanted to use some of that money to pay for her defense.

Even so, the government moved for an order freezing all of it, and the court granted it. The government argued that the forfeiture statute authorized a freeze of both property traceable to the alleged crime and “property of equivalent value.” The defendant countered that, for God’s sake, she had a constitutional right to use her own money to fund a defense. The court, however, concluded that there was “no Sixth Amendment right to use untainted, substitute assets to hire counsel.”

The trial court’s order was affirmed on appeal, but the Supreme Court reversed, ruling that the government violated the defendant’s right to counsel when it restrained her legitimate, untainted assets in a way that deprived her of the ability to retain her counsel of choice.

Otherwise, the Court noted, the government could effectively prevent people from hiring private lawyers and law firms to defend them.

Then everyone would have to rely on a public-defense system that included “overworked and underpaid public defenders.”

Imagine that.

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