Supreme Court

Today at SCOTUS: The Sixth Amendment, Asset Forfeiture, and the Right to Counsel

The Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Luis v. United States.


The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to counsel in "all criminal prosecutions." In oral arguments today, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether that right trumps the federal government's desire to freeze the non-tainted assets of a criminal defendant before trial, an action that would prevent that defendant from paying to retain the lawyer of her choosing.

The case of Luis v. United States arose in 2012 when Sila Luis was indicted in Florida on charges of operating a complicated scheme that allegedly defrauded Medicare of upwards of $40 million. The federal prosecutor in her case sought and obtained a pre-trial order freezing her assets. What makes this order notable is that the federal government moved to freeze not only her "tainted" assets, meaning those assets that can be arguably traced back to the alleged underlying crime; but the federal government also moved to freeze Luis' undisputedly legitimate assets, which amount to some $15 million that cannot be connected in any way to any alleged criminal activity.

Put differently, Luis v. United States raises significant questions about both the scope of the Sixth Amendment and the reach of federal asset forfeiture law. Luis—who has yet to be convicted of any crime connected to this matter—seeks to access her wholly legitimate assets in order to fund her criminal defense. She maintains that this is her right under the Sixth Amendment. The federal government seeks to stop her, arguing that the Sixth Amendment should pose no barrier to the prosecution's tactics. According to the federal government, because all of Luis' assets could be subject to forfeiture if she is ultimately convicted, federal prosecutors should not be stopped from freezing all of her "forfeitable" assets before she goes on trial.

A decision in Luis v. United States is expected by June 2016.

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  1. According to the federal government, because all of Luis’ assets could be subject to forfeiture if she is ultimately convicted, federal prosecutors should not be stopped from freezing all of her “forfeitable” assets before she goes on trial.

    I seem to recall something about innocent until proven guilty.

    Must have been a waking dream.

    1. Overridden by the FYTW Clause.

      1. I’d fully support a 28th amendment being added to the Constitution that says “We’re allowed to ignore anything in this document when we feel like it, because FYTW”. It’d be more honest than what we have now.

        1. I thought that was the 2nd.

    2. This is why we need somebody with some common sense on the Supreme Court rather than just another lawyer who, by training and by temperament, finds it meaningful to argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Looking strictly at the law, the government seems to have a decent argument that the law allows this – somebody with some common sense would step back and say the presumption of innocence should trump that.

      My question is: why didn’t the feds arrest Luis then freeze all her assets so she couldn’t make bail? The thought of sitting in jail for a couple of years awaiting trial if she’s too stupid to take whatever plea deal the prosecutors offer would teach that crook a lesson even if some bleeding-heart judge and jury later decided she was all technically “not guilty”. That’s how the locals do it with their BS drug charges – plead guilty and we’ll sentence you to time served and you can go home, or plead not guilty and sit there in jail for 8 or 10 months awaiting trial and then we’ll drop the charges because we ain’t got no evidence for a case and we both know it.

  2. If the government can seize legitimate assets in cases like this, why not do it for ALL cases so that every criminal case is handled by an overworked, underpaid public defender? Should make it a breeze for prosecutors to get convictions or pleas.

    1. Single-payer legal care for the win!

    2. I think you mean that it should save taxpayers millions if we no longer have to pay for pointless trials forced on us by obstructionist defense attorneys.

  3. Have forfeiture laws ever made it to the supreme court before? It seems like these laws are ripe for being overturned in their entirety.

    1. Yes. Some enterprising government lawyer came up with the legal fiction that forfeiture is an action against the property (that is accused of illegal acts), not against the defendant, so it doesn’t impugn the defendant’s constitutional rights. That’s why you get actions entitled “United States v. $157,643 from Wells Fargo Account No. 2647829” where the defendant has to move the court to intervene (within strict time periods of course) to fight the seizure.


  5. The federal government seeks to stop her, arguing that the Sixth Amendment should pose no barrier to the prosecution’s tactics.

    Then what is the point of having a Sixth Amendment?

  6. “Doctor, the patient’s tumor is contained to the liver.”
    “Nonsense, it has metastasized. It has to have metastasized, right? Better cut out all the organs to be sure.”
    “But Doctor, why are we taking things out of the patient’s body that don’t have any reason to be taken out?”
    “If there is a even a whiff of cancer (read: crime), it’s all cancer. I back that up with, ‘ME DOCTOR, ME KNOW.'”

    And scene!

    1. Did they get to use the machine that goes, “BING!”?

  7. Most people have the naive belief that the legal system works as they were taught as children, and how it’s portrayed on TV and movies (and let’s face it, prime time TV is 3 hours of propaganda every night). All the good people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s only the bad people that the good, nay noble, police and prosecutors go after. And if the system was being abused, surely they would have heard about it on the evening news.

  8. Civil Asset Forfeiture, as it is known, also to my way of thinking Theft Under Color of Law seems to be the issue here. In my view, the governments claims and positions should be rejected.

  9. Somehow I doubt that Lius’s other assets are as “indisputably” and “wholly” legitimate as Root so forcefully maintains.
    Maybe the idea that she has $15 million of “legitimate” assets, yet took the risk of defrauding the government for more, is an indication she didn’t get those funds, legally, either.
    I get the idea that most, here, decry the concept that the wealthy can buy their way out of crimes, but it seems it is OK to do so with ill-gotten gains.
    Reason commenters is da craziest peoples.

    1. The government itself has conceded that the $15M is untainted. Get your head out of your butt.

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