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Defendants Have the Right to Hire the Attorney of their Choice

 

Twenty dollar bills isolated against white background.

Twenty dollar bills isolated against white background.

The Defendant Sila Luis was charged with stealing over $45 million by allegedly paying kickbacks and conspiring to commit fraud, all related to health care.  Luis wanted to hire her own attorney, but the government froze all of her funds, even those funds unrelated to the crimes she was accused of committing.  Federal law allows the government to freeze certain assets of a defendant accused of health care fraud.  The assets that the government can freeze can be any property obtained as a result of the crime, property traceable to the crime, or substitute property.  Here the government sought to freeze substitute property, property that had no relationship to the crime.  Luis v. United States.

The district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals both agreed with the government that substitute property could be frozen, even though Luis sought to have the property released to pay her attorneys.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court reversed and held that the freezing of untainted assets needed to retain counsel of defendant’s choice violated her Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The Supreme Court reasoned that untainted funds belong to the defendant and cannot be considered loot, contraband or anything similar.  In cases cited by the government, the money was always traceable to the crime.

The Supreme Court had three key points. First, that the right to the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right, and a defendant has the right to hire any attorney she can afford.  Second, history supports the position that untainted property should not be forfeited until conviction.  Third, permitting the government to freeze untainted assets would reduce the right to counsel.

Finally, the Court observed that only 27% of county-based public defender offices have enough lawyers to meet the recommended caseload standards.