It is a cornerstone belief of our republic that even the most-heinous criminals deserve a defense. The government cannot rightfully hinder one’s ability to provide a defense and then maintain the accused’s guilt after the trial has been completed. It is an affront to justice.
Now, a new Supreme Court case is poised to either destroy asset forfeiture laws or the Sixth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment serves as one of our amendments that codifies our nation’s commitment to due process and reads:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
The long-and-short of it is that the Sixth Amendment aims to provide a speedy, fair trial.
However, federal asset forfeiture laws remain an affront to this premise. As much as it may pain law-abiding citizens to see the drug trafficker fuel his defense with money from illicit activity, the premise of asset forfeiture laws stems from an initial presumption of guilt. The logic goes as such: the drug trafficker is guilty, so the government is obliged to freeze his assets so that he cannot procure his freedom by mounting a costly legal defense. Then, the jury will reveal if he’s guilty.
The obvious problem is that the basis for the asset seizure stems from a presumption of guilt. What if the accused has been wrongly accused? The government has just hobbled the legal defense of an innocent man who could have otherwise secured a dream-team legal defense, but now must rely-upon a public defender.
Further, while the threat of asset forfeiture is meant to serve as a deterrent to crime, the same policy incentivizes victimization of possibly-innocent people. Revenue-strapped communities have a vested interest in construing the bag of marijuana in a car as a case of trafficking and with such an augmentation of charges, the car can be subject to forfeiture and auction that would monetarily benefit the revenue-strapped departments. Such laws incentivizes corruption while masquerading as a protection of the legal process.
Though America must fully embrace a legal demise of asset forfeiture laws, the first step must be to separate “suspected ill-gotten money” from “uncontested legitimate money.” In the case before the Supreme Court, the plaintiff argues a solid point.
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.
The central position by the government is unconscionable and remarkably unconstitutional. The issue before the court is whether the federal government can freeze all the assets of the accused- even the money that the government concedes is untainted and obtained by legitimate means.
It should seem that the Supreme Court has better things to do with their time than to hear a case centered on an inherently unconstitutional principle.
As much as we, as a society, may abhor the idea of a guilty man going free, we cannot sacrifice the principle of fair due process as a means of targeting suspected criminals.
In truth, the federal government’s position in this matter is nearly as ridiculous and contrary to the premise of a fair trial as the prosecution team in Salem as they hunted witches.