[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Luis v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials] that the pretrial restraint of a criminal defendant’s legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain her counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. The petitioner, Sila Luis, was charged in October 2012 by a federal grand jury with conspiring to defraud the federal government’s Medicare program by paying illegal kickbacks and billing the government for services that employees of her home health care agency never actually provided. Before the trial, attorneys for the US government obtained an order prohibiting Luis from dissipating, or otherwise disposing of her assets up to the $45 million that was fraudulently obtained. At the time, Luis’ was in possession of approximately $2 million of funds not derived from the criminal activity. The government’s interest in freezing Luis’ assets was to guarantee that the funds would remain available later to pay for statutory penalties and restitution. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Luis argued that the Sixth Amendment [text] of the US Constitution provides a litigant with a right to counsel, and the pretrial order freezing all of her assets prevented her from using her own “untainted funds”—those funds not linked to criminal activity—in order to hire the counsel of her choice. In a 5-3 vote, Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the majority, the court held that Luis’ property interest in her own untainted funds must be protected and her interest outweighs the government’s interest in freezing the assets: “The nature and importance of the constitutional right taken together with the nature of the assets” led the Court to decide that pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment.
The Supreme Court heard oral argument [JURIST report] in November. The court granted certiorari [JURIST report] last June.