Federal Criminal Defense Difficult when Government Freezes Client’s Assets: Supreme Court Finally Agrees to Hear Case About Whether Prosecutors can Obtain Pretrial Restraint of Assets Without a Hearing

Defending federal crimes is always difficult, whether the client is a “white collar” defendant charged with fraud or whether prosecutors charge other crimes, like drug violations. However, the defense is made more difficult in federal court by virtue of the prosecutor’s ability to sometimes freeze and then forfeit all of the Defendant’s assets. Making it more difficult still, the laws sometimes permit prosecutors to freeze the Defendant’s assets even without a hearing in front of a judge! After many years of uncertainty, the Supreme Court the other day agreed to hear a case as to whether the pretrial restraint (or freezing) of a Defendant’s assets is permissible if done without a hearing. The case is Kaley v. United States, and the certiorari petition is here.

Ms. Kaley was in the business of selling medical equipment. She and her husband apparently made a good living selling equipment that certain manufacturers no longer wanted. The federal authorities claimed these practices were fraudulent, and indicted the couple. Prosecutors also filed an ex parte request to restrain and freeze much of the couple’s assets, claiming that the money they had in the bank and which they’d used to buy their house was obtained as proceeds of the fraudulent conduct charged in the indictment. A Federal Magistrate Judge agreed, and issued an order freezing their assets so they could not be used by the couple to defend themselves. The case has had a complex history, with two trips already to the Court of Appeals here in Atlanta before the defense team finally got the Supreme Court to agree to hear the case.

Under 18 U.S.C. ยง853(e), when a Defendant has already been charged in an indictment the prosector can file an ex parte motion seeking restraint of assets that are subject to forfeiture upon conviction. The law does not specifically allow for a pretrial adversarial hearing where the indicted defendant may challenge the propriety of the restraints.

Back in 1989, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that such pretrial restraint violated either the Fifth or Sixth Amendments. United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989). However, a footnote in that case explicitly left open the question as to whether the Due Process Clause requires a hearing before a pretrial restraining order can be imposed. Since that time, the courts have issued contrary rulings resulting in a firmly entrenched split among the eleven circuits that have addressed the issue.

Ms. Kaley’s defense team convinced the Supreme Court to accept her case in order to answer the following question:

“When a post-indictment, ex parte restraining order freezes assets needed by a criminal defendant to retain counsel of choice, do the Fifth and Sixth Amendments require a pretrial, adversarial hearing at which the defendant may challenge the evidentiary support and legal theory of the underlying charges?”

This case has huge ramifications in situations where the feds go after Defendants with enough funds to hire good lawyers, but those attorneys cannot be paid because a judge agrees with the prosecutors to freeze the assets even without hearing from the defense. We will follow the case closely.