There are limits to what the government can take from you. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution forbids the government from freezing a defendant’s “untainted” assets in advance of prosecution. The ruling is a significant victory for those caught in the government’s crosshairs. It is also a significant victory for a traditional concept of justice, which prefers to err on the side of the accused over government agents.
In its decision in Luis v. U.S., the high court agreed with a criminal defendant who argued that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the government froze assets unrelated to allegedly criminal behavior. Without access to those funds, the defendant would be unable to retain the attorney of her choice.
The Court considered the government’s interest in preserving funds to pay restitution and criminal penalties, but concluded that a defendant’s right to counsel is “fundamental,” outweighing any interest the government might ultimately have: “[The government’s] interests are important, but — compared to the right to counsel — they seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”
In a 5-3 ruling, the Court based its decision on this balancing test, as well as on traditional understandings of common law, which distinguish between assets directly related to alleged criminal behavior and assets considered “innocent” or untainted. The Court found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Moreover, the Court highlighted concerns that the government’s position has no obvious stopping point and could erode defendants’ right to counsel considerably.
Encroaching on the Sixth Amendment is but one of the several concerns posed by the government’s growing love of forfeiture — it has become too handy of a tool in prosecutors’ pockets — but it is perhaps the gravest concern, as it threatens an individual’s ability to effectively defend him or herself. It puts defendants at a significant disadvantage: they want to obtain the best representation they can afford in order to defend themselves, but they may not be able to afford any if the government freezes all their assets in the hope of confiscating them after a conviction. They may be left begging friends and family to help fund their defense or relying upon overburdened public defenders to represent them. The government’s tactic is the courtroom equivalent of inviting an opponent to a boxing match and then tying one hand behind his back.
The criminal defense bar has decried government’s overuse of asset forfeiture for years. While the government has argued that pre-trial asset seizure is justified in order to preserve its ability to recover funds and penalties, the process has been used to try to deter behavior by making an example of people. Moreover, pre-trial asset seizure looks a lot like presumed guilt, as opposed to presumed innocence. The occasional constitutionally minded congressional representative has tried to curb forfeiture overuse through legislative initiatives, but these bills keep getting left to die in committees and subcommittees. It is nice to see some effective limits placed on the practice by the Court.
Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, took issue with Justice Breyer’s opinion “balancing” the state’s interest against individuals’ constitutional rights. He argued the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from seizing untainted assets, period; there is no need to consider a balancing approach. But at least the plurality of the Court recognized that, when balancing the government’s interests in the outcome of a case against the individual’s right to adequately defend him or herself, you should err on the side of the individual.
If that means the state sometimes loses out on full satisfaction of a monetary judgment, that is preferable to defendants being prevented from mounting an effective defense. More wrongful convictions would result from that policy, and the seizure of a few more dollars from the truly guilty would be no consolation. If there is any question whether historically we have favored individual rights over the state’s interests in criminal prosecutions, look only to the Bill of Rights. Justice demands that if anyone’s hand is to be tied in the courtroom, it should be the hand of the government.