The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to take up a case testing whether federal prosecutors are entitled to freeze all the assets of a criminal defendant even when some of those assets are not tainted by any crime and the funds are needed to pay for a defense lawyer, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The question is whether the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to hire counsel of choice should outweigh efforts by prosecutors to recover the full value of an alleged fraud on the government. The Justices may say Monday whether they will hear the case.
The issue is significant because the government is increasingly using forfeiture as a potent weapon to ensure that crime doesn't pay. In a 15-month period in 2012 and 2013, the Justice Department seized $1.5 billion and returned those assets to 400,000 crime victims. Most forfeitures involve government claims on stolen property or proceeds directly traceable to criminal activity. A growing segment of seizures involves using civil statutes to freeze financial and other assets that are not proceeds of criminal activity or otherwise tainted by crime. If that freeze occurs before a criminal trial, the defendant may be rendered broke and unable to hire a lawyer. Critics say such heavy-handed tactics raise fundamental questions about fairness, property rights, and the right to use one's own money to hire an effective defense lawyer.