It’s long been settled that the government can force a defendant to turn over property associated with a crime, but in recent years prosecutors have tried to grab more and more property from defendants who have not been convicted of any crime. And often it hasn’t matter whether that property is associated with any crime either. If that sounds wrong to you, it’s rubbed many defense and appellate attorneys the wrong way too, and last week the U.S. Supreme Court put the brakes on the practice by holding that the state cannot order a defendant to forfeit money that has nothing to do with an alleged crime.
Luis v. United States and the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel
In Luis v. United States, the defendant was accused of running a massive $45 million scheme between her two companies to defraud Medicare. However, by the time an indictment was brought against her, she only had $2 million in assets. The government moved to freeze these assets as “"property of equivalent value.” A district judge granted this petition, effectively leaving the defendant destitute and unable to afford the attorney of her choice. The issue is that even the government admitted that the money it sought to freeze wasn’t directly connected to the alleged criminal activity.
As the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to counsel of the defendant’s choice, a plurality of Supreme Court justices took issue with the government’s action. By cutting off access to all funds for the defendant, she was unable to defend herself as she wished, with money that was legally obtained.
The justices went out of their way to point out that this holding still doesn’t apply to assets connected to a crime. For example, the government still order the forfeiture of money believed to be taken in the course of a bank robbery, but the government cannot seize a bank account completely unconnected to any crime.
The final vote of the Court was 5-3, with four justices backing one analysis of cases such as this, and the fifth justice writing in favor of a slightly different test. While this could lead to circuit splits down the line, the general law of the land is now that a court cannot freeze money that is unconnected to a crime, as it deprives a defendant of the counsel of his or her choice. Even though this case went through the federal courts, it also now applies to state criminal cases through the Fourteenth Amendment, so Illinois courts will be required to follow this precedent.
Need Legal Help?
Luis is now the law of the land, and makes it harder for prosecutors to seize money before a trial commences. This means you may now be eligible to have money returned to you while your case is pending, or you could possibly file an appeal of a previous order to forfeit assets to the state. For more information, contact the Chicago offices of Barney & Hourihane today for a consultation.