The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it was unconstitutional for the government to seize the “untainted” assets of a criminal suspect when it keeps her from hiring a lawyer of her choice to fight the charges.
A splintered court said the Sixth Amendment right to hire a qualified attorney that a defendant can afford prevailed against the government’s interest in freezing assets that could be used for restitution and fines if the person is convicted.
“How are defendants whose innocent assets are frozen in cases like these supposed to pay for a lawyer — particularly if they lack ‘tainted assets’ because they are innocent?” asked Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The case divided the court in unusual ways. Breyer’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and two justices from the left, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Conservative Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome but not Breyer’s reasoning.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a dissent that was joined by conservative Samuel A. Alito Jr., while liberal Elena Kagan wrote a separate dissenting opinion.
The case was brought by Sila Luis of Miami, who was indicted in 2012 for allegedly paying kickbacks, conspiring to commit fraud and other crimes related to the government’s spending on health care. All told, prosecutors said, Luis’s actions brought her about $45 million from Medicare over a six-year period.
The problem for the government was that she spent almost all of it, according to court documents. She transferred some to family members, placed some in holdings in Mexico and bought herself various luxuries and trips abroad.
The government went after about $2 million remaining in Luis’s possession, even though it could not show that money was related to her alleged crimes. A district judge approved freezing the assets, and an appeals court upheld the order.
Luis said that violated her right to hire the lawyer of her choice to defend her against the charges.
Breyer wrote that the court’s previous cases granting the government leeway to freeze funds concerned assets that were related to the crimes at hand.
“The relevant difference consists of the fact that the property here is untainted; i.e., it belongs to the defendant, pure and simple,” Breyer wrote. “In this respect it differs from a robber’s loot, a drug seller’s cocaine, a burglar’s tools, or other property associated with the planning, implementing, or concealing of a crime.”
Breyer acknowledged that money is fungible but said that “the law has tracing rules that help courts implement the kind of distinction we require in this case.”
Thomas provided a majority in the case by agreeing with the outcome. But he said that he based his opinion on a strict reading of the Sixth Amendment and that there was no need to engage in the balancing Breyer performed in weighing the interests of Luis and the government.
Kennedy wrote that the opinion provides criminals with a road map.
The “unprecedented holding rewards criminals who hurry to spend, conceal, or launder stolen property by assuring them that they may use their own funds to pay for an attorney after they have dissipated the proceeds of their crime,” he wrote.
He added: “The true winners today are sophisticated criminals who know how to make criminal proceeds look untainted. They do so every day.”
The case is Luis v. United States.