RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida
DOCKET NO.: 14-419
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Jun 08, 2015
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2015
DECIDED: Mar 30, 2016
Howard Srebnick - for the petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, for the United States
Facts of the case
A federal grand jury indicted Sila Luis for her alleged role in a Medicare fraud scheme that involved giving kickbacks to patients who enrolled with her home healthcare companies. Because federal law allows the government to file a pretrial motion to restrain the assets of defendants accused of particular types of fraud, including substitute assets not directly related to the fraud, the government did so in this case. Luis objected to the motion and argued that she needed those funds in order to pay for her criminal defense lawyer, and therefore granting the motion would violate her right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The district court granted the motion, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
<p>Does the pretrial restraint of assets that are not directly related to the crime at issue and are needed to retain counsel of choice violate the defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights?</p>
Media for Luis v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 2015 in Luis v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 30, 2016 in Luis v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Breyer has the announcement this morning in case 14-419, Luis versus United States.
Stephen G. Breyer:
A federal statute provides that a court may freeze, that means nobody can use it, freeze before a trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of healthcare and banking law violations.
Those assets which the defendants include both tainted property, that is property he obtained as a result it's claimed or connected to, he got them as a result of the connected anyway to the crime.
And also the statute says they can get untainted property, and that is innocent property that belongs fully to the defendant.
Now in this case, the government wants to freeze the assets before trial belonging to the untainted property category, but the petitioner Sila Luis needs the same funds to pay for her counsel, for her lawyer of her choice.
So the legal conflict arises.
We resolved this conflict in favor of the defendant.
We hold that she can use the funds to pay for her lawyer.
In reaching this conclusion, a plurality of the court, that is the Chief Justice Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor and myself considered two questions.
The first question is a question of the precedence of the Court.
In 1989, this Court held that the Constitution did permit the government to freeze the pretrial use of certain funds that a defendant needed to pay her lawyer, but in our view that precedent does not determine the outcome here, and that is because the certain funds there involved were tainted funds connected with the crime and as the Court there emphasized, the statute said the title to those assets passed to the government before the trial.
The defendant therefore did not have title to the funds at the time the government froze their use.
But in this case the funds are untainted.
There is no statute giving the government title to them, and consequently the defendant has the title the funds, they are hers, and unless and until she is convicted they belong to her.
Now that's a technical sounding distinction, but we don't think it's really so technical.
It means that until conviction, the untainted property at issue belongs to the defendant, pure and simple.
Luis could tell the government at that time that the pretrial difference between the tainted funds in the cases that we decided in 1989 and the untainted funds which are at issue here is the difference between what is yours and what is mine.
That we think is a pretty basic difference.
Now the second question arises because we recognize that the law of property sometimes allows a person who doesn't own the property, who doesn't have a present interest in the property, but he might get it later and some people like that sometimes can impose restrictions on the current owner of property.
For example, a person with a future interest in land can sometimes prevent the present owner of the land from wasting the property.
But we do not believe the Sixth Amendment permits the government who here a non-owner, but potentially a future owner, it does not permit the government to impose a freeze to freeze to pretrial use of those assets.
That is because to allow the government to do so would seriously undermine her fundamental Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.
Moreover, we can find no instance in which a court has allowed a similar kind of restraint anywhere in the history of our common law tradition, and Justice Thomas' separate opinion goes into that history in some detail.
Finally as a practical matter to accept the government's position would unleash a principle of constitutional law which we cannot see any stopping place to, at least no obvious one.
Given the state financial consequences of criminal convictions, how are defendants whose innocent assets have been frozen that rule out, how are they supposed to pay for a lawyer, particularly if no other assets exist and say the defendant is innocent of the crime, and that's her only money.
For these reasons we conclude that the defendant in this case has a Sixth Amendment right to use her own innocent property to pay a reasonable fee for the assistance of counsel, and we consequently vacate the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Alito joins, and Justice Kagan has filed a separate dissenting opinion.