The Government Cannot Choose Your Lawyer

This is a recent Supreme Court Case of Luis v. United States. The issue was whether the government could freeze assets of a person charged with a crime to prevent Luis hiring the lawyer of her choice. The Supreme Court ruled that it violated Luis’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.

Luis maintained that the assets were not tainted and the government agreed. There is a federal statute that allows a court before trial to freeze certain assets that belong to a defendant being accused of violating federal health care or banking laws. According to that statute, those assets include: 1. prop¬erty “obtained as a result of the crime”, 2. property “trace¬able” to the crime, and 3. as relevant here, other “property of equivalent value.” 18 U.S.C. § 1345(a)(2).

The purpose of this statute is to safeguard remaining funds that can be necessary to secure payments that are required as a result of the trial. The Supreme Court in Luis v. United States examined the constitutionality of a pretrial freeze of a defendant’s assets and determined whether it violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The defendant in this case, Silas Luis, was charged with fraudulently obtaining nearly $45 million through crimes related to health care. The government, wanting to preserve the remaining $2 million in Luis’s possession, successfully obtained a pretrial order to freeze the money. The government’s interest in this money was to preserve it for any restitution or criminal penalties that might need to be paid out.

The rational of the district court was that although the freeze might prohibit Luis from obtaining the counsel of her choice, the Sixth Amendment only gives a right to counsel, and not the right to use one’s own funds for counsel. Luis ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court for certiorari review.

The Supreme Court cited an older case stating that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel grants a defendant “a fair op¬portunity to secure counsel of his own choice,” Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932). The court interprets the constitutional right to counsel of choice as a right that is fundamental and even though they acknowledge that the Government does not deny Luis’ fundamental right to be represented by an attorney, it would impair her fundamental right by taking from Luis the ability to use funds that she would use to pay for an attorney of her choosing.

The government argued that the interest in securing those funds to guarantee that they would be available later outweigh any repercussions against Luis. The government raised two prior cases to support their contention that the court should uphold the district courts decision. The court however, differentiated from those cases by acknowledging that unlike the prior cases raised by the government, Luis’s funds were not tainted, and the government has no interest in the property.

Although there are instances where the law does allow a person without interest in a property to impose restrictions on the owner, it will not come at the cost of violating one’s constitutional right. The Court concluded that the pretrial restraint of untainted assets that is needed by the defendant to retain the counsel of her choosing violates her Sixth Amendment right.

I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to protect Luis’s fundamental right to counsel. The Sixth Amendment right extends not only to that of qualified legal counsel, but to also have the counsel of your own choosing. Without a doubt the government does have an important interest in protecting those funds, however freezing remaining funds in one’s account will restrict that ability of a defendant’s right to counsel, especially when it is access to legitimate money that is not tainted or illegally obtained.

If you are facing a federal criminal charge in the Northern, Middle or Southern District of Alabama, contact Ingram Law LLC or Joseph A. Ingram at (205) 236-3997.. Mr. Ingram has experience and established results in federal court.

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