Supreme Court Finds Seizure of Untainted Funds Compromises Constitutional Right to Counsel

Divided Court results in uneasy balancing of Constitutional rights

The Sixth Amendment guarantees, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right...to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." In a recent case from Florida, a woman accused of Medicare fraud experienced that right being diminished. The government attempted to freeze all of her assets, claiming it was necessary to preserve these assets for potential fines and restitution if she were convicted.

The U.S. Supreme Court has permitted the government to freeze the fruits of a criminal activity for these purposes. In this case, because there were limited assets available, the government also wanted to seize the "untainted" assets that were not generated by that alleged criminal activity.

In a split decision, a majority of the Court found that the Sixth Amendment does prevent this in her case, although they came to that conclusion in different ways.

For most individuals accused of a crime, the Sixth Amendment is perhaps their most important right. Every criminal prosecution demands that an accused understand the case against them and in addition to understanding the charges and the potential penalties, it also requires that they understand the procedural rules and practice of the state or federal courts in which they stand accused.

Without this understanding, even a well-educated individual has little chance of not making serious blunders in their defense and potentially compromising their case. Especially in sophisticated federal criminal prosecutions, involving complex statutes and regulations like those of Medicare, the need of experienced counsel is almost absolute.

In this case, Justice Stephen Breyer's opinion created a balancing test, weighing the defendant's right to obtain an attorney of their choosing with the government's interest in preserving assets in the case. The troubling aspect of this test is that it balances a fundamental constitutional matter (right to counsel) with the trivial concern of the government recovering some monetary amount.

This seems ill-conceived, as it is dangerous to create a balancing test on constitutional rights, as the scales of justice can be tipped on a slippery slope for all the wrong reasons.

His opinion also touched on the fact that public defenders offices are already overwhelmed throughout the nation. Forcing more defendants into their offices by seizing assets, would further overburden those offices and make the work of the public defenders less effective by this overwork. This would, in turn, reduce defendant's Sixth Amendment rights by forcing them to use over-worked attorneys.

Breyer also noted the danger of permitting the government to seize untainted assets had no endpoint. Congress could always enact additional laws that would allow additional pretrial restraints on untainted funds and that there was "no obvious stopping place" using that rationale.

Justice Kennedy dissented, claiming this ruling would reward defendants who spend their ill-gotten gains first, but that seems unrealistic. People do not plan their crimes on the assumption that they will be caught and it seems highly unlikely that they would structure their spending habits on that assumption.

Justice Kagan dissented on separate grounds, finding a prior case problematic in this context, but because the court was not asked to reverse that cases ruling, she felt it controlled in spite of its illogical result.