Pre-trial restraint of untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates Sixth Amendment

Supreme Court of United States: In an interesting case wherein the issue was as to whether the pretrial restraint of a criminal defendant’s legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment, the Court concluded that the criminal defendant in this case has a Sixth Amendment right to use her own “innocent” property to pay a reasonable fee for the assistance of counsel and pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets violates the Sixth Amendment. The Court reached the conclusion by analysing the nature and importance of the constitutional right together with the nature of the assets.

In the instant case, the Government has charged petitioner with fraudulently obtaining nearly $45 million through crimes related to health care. In order to preserve the $2 million remaining in petitioner’s possession for payment of restitution and other criminal penalties, the Government secured a pretrial order prohibiting the petitioner from dissipating her assets, including assets unrelated to her alleged crimes. The petitioner herein challenged the freeze order, arguing that it violated her Sixth Amendment right which guarantees a defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire. The Government on the other hand did not deny the petitioner’s right but pointed out that there were important interests like availability of funds to pay for statutory penalties that might be later imposed.

Breyer J, writing for Roberts C.J, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor JJ., highlighted that the Government may be able to freeze or seize assets of the criminal defendant, “tainted” kind before trial and as a matter of property law the defendant’s ownership interest on such assets is imperfect. But the property in question was untainted and belonged to the petitioner and the Government did not show any equivalent governmental interest in that property. The Court further reasoned that on one side Sixth Amendment right exists which is a fundamental constituent of due process of law while on the other side there are Government’s contingent interest in securing its punishment of choice namely, criminal forfeiture as well as the victims’ interest in securing restitution. These latter interests are important, but compared to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, they seem to undermine the working of a fair, effective criminal justice system. Thomas J. giving a concurring opinion also concluded; the rule that a pretrial freeze of untainted assets violates defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice rests strictly on the Sixth Amendment’s text and common law backdrop. Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. [Sila Luis v. United States, 578 U. S. ____ (2016), decided on 30.03.2016]

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