The federal government cannot block lawyers for drug dealers and racketeers from being paid out of their clients' seized assets, a federal judge in Alexandria has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris held that the defendants have a constitutional right to the choice of their lawyers and that to deny the lawyers payment would violate this right. His ruling was a setback for Justice Department efforts to stop criminals from using the proceeds of their illegal activities to pay for defense counsel.

Citing 1984 legislation that permits the government to seize the assets of those convicted of racketeering or running a continuing criminal enterprise, federal prosecutors have argued that those funds cannot be used to pay legal fees. In some cases, government lawyers have obtained restraining orders on defendants' assets at the time they were charged, rendering it impossible for the defendants to hire legal counsel.

The Justice Department has not yet decided whether it will appeal Cacheris' ruling, said William Landers, a special counsel in the criminal division. It has not appealed similar rulings by at least three other federal judges, Landers said.

In the Alexandria case, the government obtained an order freezing the assets of Christopher Reckmeyer of McLean when he was indicted last year on a charge of operating a multimillion-dollar drug ring out of a Loudoun County estate. All his assets were forfeited to the government when he pleaded guilty to running a continuing criminal enterprise.

Reckmeyer had hired Washington lawyer Bernard S. Bailor to represent him, but since Reckmeyer's money was forfeited, Bailor was never paid. The lawyer, who said he was owed $170,513, filed a petition with the court to be paid out of Reckmeyer's seized funds.

Government lawyers opposed Bailor's request, arguing that the 1984 legislation was intended by Congress to include attorneys' fees and that the government should not have to pay Reckmeyer's attorney out of funds seized by the government.

Cacheris found that Congress had not taken a position on the issue.