The Supreme Court held last week that in a federal health care fraud prosecution, the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from obtaining a pretrial freeze of assets that were untainted by the alleged crime and that defendant sought to use to pay her lawyer.
In Luis v. United States, the government alleged that the defendant had been engaged in paying kickbacks and conspiring to commit health care violations, and had fraudulently obtained close to $45 million. The government sought a pretrial order restraining $2 million under 18 U.S.C. § 1345, which allows a restraint on property obtained as a result of health care fraud or “property of equivalent value.” Here, however, the property the government sought to restrain was not connected with the alleged crime, and defendant sought to use those funds to hire counsel to defend her in the criminal case.
The Supreme Court held that the pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion first emphasized that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is “fundamental” and “guarantees a defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire.” The government argued that the important interests of keeping assets available for statutory penalties and compensation of victims justified the restraint.
Justice Breyer found controlling the fact that the funds at issue were untainted by the alleged crimes, so they belonged to the criminal defendant “pure and simple.” In contrast, tainted funds—assets connected to a crime—may be subject to pretrial restraint. The Court, for example, has held that tainted funds subject to forfeiture may be restrained pretrial even if the defendant seeks to use those funds to pay a lawyer. Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989); United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989). A significant factor in the forfeiture cases was that title to forfeited property passes to the government at the time of the crime. The government, however, had no present interest in the defendant’s untainted funds in the case before the Court.
While in some circumstances a party without a present interest may restrain property, here the criminal defendant sought to use the funds to hire counsel, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not permit such a restraint. Justice Breyer noted that accepting the government’s position could erode the right to counsel, as Congress may provide more statutory provisions allowing for restraint of untainted assets equivalent in value to the criminal proceeds.
The decision did not break along usual lines for the Court. The plurality opinion authored by Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor. Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, writing that he would not engage in any balancing and would hold strictly that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a pretrial asset freeze infringing the right to counsel. Justices Kennedy, Alito and Kagan dissented, asserting on various grounds that where the government has established probable cause to believe that it will eventually recover all of the defendant’s assets, she has no right to use them pretrial to pay for a lawyer.
In the end, the decision draws a clear Constitutional line between: (1) tainted funds, which may be subject to pretrial restraint, and (2) innocent or untainted funds needed to pay for counsel, which may not.