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.