Can the government freeze a defendant’s assets before a trial?
December 11, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Breaking: The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the United States. The majority said that defendants whose assets have been frozen because of suspicion of illegal activity do not have a right to a hearing to access their money to pay for private attorneys.
We’ve seen it in the movies: An international drug smuggler gets nabbed by the FBI and then the prosecutor announces the suspect’s assets have been frozen.
Seems like a logical step in the legal process – freeze all the suspected criminal’s property and money so he can’t flee the country. But is it constitutional?
That question is at the heart of a case that was argued before the Supreme Court in October. Kaley v. United States asks whether the federal government can freeze a defendant’s money without letting the defendant challenge the indictment. When a grand jury indicts an individual after hearing evidence, that means it found probable cause for charges to be brought.
In 2005, Kerri Kaley was a sales representative for a medical device company. She and her husband, Brian, were charged with selling stolen medical devices. She says she was legally allowed to resell medical equipment that hospitals were throwing out. The resale brought the Kaleys to the attention of a federal grand jury. The Kaleys put aside $500,000 to pay for lawyers if they were indicted.
In 2007, the grand jury indicted the Kaleys on charges of money laundering and other offenses. Prosecutors acted to freeze the couple’s assets, including the money set aside for legal fees. The decision was made without letting the Kaleys challenge their indictment. The government used the indictment as the basis for freezing the Kaleys’ assets, which the Kaleys said prevented them from hiring the lawyers they wanted.
The Kaleys argued that when the court froze their assets without a pretrial hearing, their Sixth Amendment rights to counsel and a fair trial were denied. They asked the Supreme Court to decide if the Constitution says defendants have a right to challenge their indictment before the government freezes their assets. The Supreme Court has not set rules for whether such hearings are required and what tests should be applied.
On the government’s side, Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben said that “for over two hundred years, the grand jury’s determination of probable cause is conclusive” and that requiring a hearing on pretrial asset freezes would force a judge to second-guess the grand jury that issued the indictment. He also said that freezing assets before a trial was necessary so they can be used to pay restitution for victims of white-collar crimes if the defendant is convicted.
What do you think?
Are defendants entitled to a hearing to challenge their indictment before their assets are frozen? Does freezing a defendant’s assets before a trial counter the principle of innocent until proven guilty? Does seizing a person’s assets infringe on the right to counsel? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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