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Luis v. United States

On March 30, 2016, the United States Supreme Court, in Luis v. United States, decided whether a 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. The court, in a 5-3 decision, ruled that the restraint is unconstitutional. 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. The United States Supreme Court accepted the case for review.

The court found that the Sixth Amendment forbids the government from seizing untainted assets before trial when defendants need those assets to hire lawyers of their choice. They ruled the right to counsel of choice outweighed the government’s interest in restitution and fines. Justice Clarence Thomas supported the result but saw a clear command from the Sixth Amendment forbidding such restraints instead of a balancing act. The court held that defendants whose innocent assets are frozen in cases like these which are supposed to pay for a lawyer—particularly if they lack ‘tainted assets’ because they are innocent, is a class of defendants whom the right to counsel certainly seeks to protect. The justice’s most striking question was “what would happen if Luis and others like her could no longer afford to pay for a lawyer?”

The court answered by stating that, “these defendants, rendered indigent, would fall back upon publicly paid counsel, including overworked and underpaid public defenders.” The justices concluded by arguing that there is a “is a substantial risk that accepting the Government’s views would—by increasing the government-paid-defender workload—render less effective the basic right the Sixth Amendment seeks to protect.” More importantly, the justices, in dicta, did ask one other question which is an important question to ask: Does America’s underfunded public-defender system meet the Sixth Amendment’s standards for adequate legal counsel?

Indeed, the constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere else is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana’s, where public defenders represent more than eight out of ten criminal defendants. Recently, defendants were placed in waiting lists because the state can’t afford to employ enough public defenders to represent defendants. Unfortunately, the result is that hundreds of those without counsel are sitting in prison and their cases have either been put on a wait list or refused altogether by the local public defender’s office. This is unacceptable and must change.

See the Supreme Court’s opinion here.