There are limits to what the government can take from you. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution forbids the government from freezing a defendant’s “untainted” assets in advance of prosecution. The ruling is a significant victory for those caught in the government’s crosshairs. It is also a significant victory for a traditional concept of justice, which prefers to err on the side of the accused over government agents.
In its decision in Luis v. U.S., the high court agreed with a criminal defendant who argued that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the government froze assets unrelated to allegedly criminal behavior. Without access to those funds, the defendant would be unable to retain the attorney of her choice.
The Court considered the government’s interest in preserving funds to pay restitution and criminal penalties, but concluded that a defendant’s right to counsel is “fundamental,” outweighing any interest the government mightultimately have: “[The government’s] interests are important, but — compared to the right to counsel — they seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”
In a 5-3 ruling, the Court based its decision on this balancing test, as well as on traditional understandings of common law, which distinguish between assets directly related to alleged criminal behavior and assets considered “innocent” or untainted. The Court found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Moreover, the Court highlighted concerns that the government’s position has no obvious stopping point and could erode defendants’ right to counsel considerably.
Encroaching on the Sixth Amendment is but one of the several concerns posed by the government’s growing love of forfeiture — it has become too handy of a tool in prosecutors’ pockets — but it is perhaps the gravest concern, as it threatens an individual’s ability to effectively defend him or herself. It puts defendants at a significant disadvantage: they want to obtain the best representation they can afford in order to defend themselves, but they may not be able to afford any if the government freezes all their assets in the hope of confiscating them after a conviction. They may be left begging friends and family to help fund their defense or relying upon overburdened public defenders to represent them. The government’s tactic is the courtroom equivalent of inviting an opponent to a boxing match and then tying one hand behind his back.
The criminal defense bar has decried government’s overuse of asset forfeiture for years. While the government has argued that pre-trial asset seizure is justified in order to preserve its ability to recover funds and penalties, the process has been used to try to deter behavior by making an example of people. Moreover, pre-trial asset seizure looks a lot like presumed guilt, as opposed to presumed innocence. The occasional constitutionally minded congressional representative has tried to curb forfeiture overuse through legislative initiatives, but these bills keep getting left to die in committees and subcommittees. It is nice to see some effective limits placed on the practice by the Court.
Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, took issue with Justice Breyer’s opinion “balancing” the state’s interest against individuals’ constitutional rights. He argued the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from seizing untainted assets, period; there is no need to consider a balancing approach. But at least the plurality of the Court recognized that, when balancing the government’s interests in the outcome of a case against the individual’s right to adequately defend him or herself, you should err on the side of the individual.
If that means the state sometimes loses out on full satisfaction of a monetary judgment, that is preferable to defendants being prevented from mounting an effective defense. More wrongful convictions would result from that policy, and the seizure of a few more dollars from the truly guilty would be no consolation. If there is any question whether historically we have favored individual rights over the state’s interests in criminal prosecutions, look only to the Bill of Rights. Justice demands that if anyone’s hand is to be tied in the courtroom, it should be the hand of the government.
This article first appeared February 29, 2016, on FEE.org – you can access this version here.
Remember Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” notorious for raising the price of his company’s life-saving drug by some 5,000 percent? Did you know he was recently arrested for securities fraud (completely unrelated to the drug hike)? It didn’t take long for the Justice Department to go after the universally unpopular rapscallion.
Big government gets a bad rap for being inefficient, but it can cut to the chase rather swiftly when it wants to. In order to stop, or at least dramatically curb, behavior that goes against law or policy — or perhaps just opinion — government enforcement agents know how to employ a show of force and to make an example of someone they deem a wrongdoer. The punishment is public and can be severe.
Setting an Example
A recent show of force can be seen in federal actions against the dietary supplement industry. The industry has exploded in recent years, thanks in large part to the public’s growing love for health and homeopathy. The popularity has, predictably, attracted moneymakers of both the scrupulous and unscrupulous kind.
The government wants to rein in the industry, so to set an example it has come down hard on one company. USPlabs was one of more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements against whom the Justice Department announced it was pursuing civil and criminal cases. But the company had the unfortunate luck to become the government’s example of what it can do to wrongdoers. Not only did the DOJ charge the company; it also indicted several of its executives and froze their assets — from investment accounts to homes to automobiles.
Do the Ends Justify the Meanness?
The government’s heavy hand on USPlabs is the kind of crackdown you expect against organized crime or large drug rings. What were the criminal defendants at USPlabs alleged to have done? Not exactly Sopranos-level stuff: importing ingredients with false certificates of analysis and false labeling, misrepresenting the source and nature of product ingredients, selling products without determining safety, and continuing to sell products after they told agents they would stop.
If the allegations are true, the defendants’ actions were wrong. But public arrests and asset seizure are extreme. How often do people accused of false labeling get perp walked? The DOJ’s tactics look like shock-and-awe theater for the benefit of others.
If there is any doubt whether the government wanted to use its hard-line approach against USPlabs as an example for other companies, look no further than this statement by FDA Deputy Commissioner Howard Sklamberg: “The criminal charges against USPlabs should serve as notice to industry that if products are a threat to public health, the FDA will exercise its full authority under the law to bring justice.”
In other words, makers and marketers of dietary supplements: beware!
You may think the Justice Department performed a public service by coming down so hard on Shkreli and USPlabs. Why should we care if the government crushes some scalawags and discourages others in the process?
What if the government’s show of force comes at the cost of a defendant’s due process rights? Shkreli has said that the feds targeted him because of the drug price hike, looking for anything to stop him. Now he’s been fired and his company has filed for bankruptcy. That’s a pretty high price to pay for being obnoxious.
While deterrence may be an acceptable basis for punishment, it doesn’t justify punishment that exceeds the crime. Arresting executives and seizing their personal bank accounts, homes, and cars in an instance like this is excessive. More commonly in cases like USPlabs, prosecutors will settle with the company, levy a fine against it, require it to institute controls to avoid further wrongdoing, and perhaps require it to be monitored for a while to ensure controls are being observed.
Going after the individual executives as if they were Mafia kingpins goes beyond the pale. Freezing or seizing assets is something that prosecutors more commonly do when those assets are being used to carry out criminal behavior, or when there is a great risk those assets will be disposed of before judicial proceedings. Chances are slim that the executives in the USPlabs matter were planning on liquidating their family homes or cars.
Yet Another Slippery Slope
For those who think the government is on the right side in its show of force, ask yourselves whether the government isn’t pursuing its initiatives (even reasonable initiatives like reining in fraud) a bit brutishly. Making an example of an alleged wrongdoer even before the wrongdoer’s day in court harkens back to techniques used by conquerors in days of old who put heads on pikes to show the subjugated just who was in charge.
And what if the government decides to crack down on behavior not so clearly reprehensible? Say the government decides to put speeding in check by jailing a few folks going modestly over the limit. How many of us would feel safer?
Even when we dislike the targets of prosecutorial zeal, supporting justice is in our self-interest. When the government sets aside due process and proportionality to set an example of other would-be wrongdoers, they are sacrificing justice for the sake of regulatory expediency.