“You Have the Right to Counsel, But We Are Going to Take Away Any Money You Have to Hire the Type of Lawyers Who Specialize in Federal Cases”: Contrasting Gideon v. Wainwright With Federal Pretrial Forfeiture Laws

As I noted in this post, on Tuesday the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Kaley v. United States, a case calling on the Justices to answer the question of whether the Sixth and Fifth Amendments afford a Defendant the right to a pretrial hearing to challenge the seizure of her assets under the federal forfeiture laws when that seizure basically prevents her from hiring and paying for counsel of her choice. It is more than a little ironic that they decided to review the case on the same day we were all celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case ruling by the Supreme Court that everybody facing felony charges has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford to pay the lawyer. While we have made strides in the past five decades, in many ways we are worse off when a person faces the wrath of the federal government bent on a criminal prosecution.

On the one hand, we still have a long way to go when we provide counsel to people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Many wonderful lawyers are public defenders who struggle to provide the best defense they can while handling massive and crushing caseloads. While Defendants have the “right” to an attorney, far too often the system is set up so that the public defender simply cannot spend much time with any one client, more or less rendering meaningless the Constitutional “right to counsel” enshrined in the Gideon case.

On the other hand, people facing federal criminal prosecutions face additional difficulties. First, as we have mentioned many times, and as I have written and spoken about on numerous occasions, there is a big difference between a State criminal case and a prosecution handled by the federal government. Federal criminal cases are often exceedingly complex, time-consuming, and beyond the abilities of many otherwise fine lawyers who simply are not equipped to handle the often arcane and weird aspects of defending a criminal case in federal court. Federal criminal defense is a speciality, and like other professions, specialists usually cost a lot more money, which makes it difficult for many people to defend themselves against charges in federal court. Second, defending a case in federal court also puts a Defendant (and his or her attorney) up against a series of very pro-prosecution laws. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the U.S. Congress regularly enacted more and more “tough on crime” laws. Some of these laws increased sentences (like the horrible crack cocaine laws and mandatory minimum punishments). Other “crime prevention” legislation was aimed at people in the drug trade, and many statutes were designed to go after the money involved in the drug business. One of these laws greatly increased the scope of the federal forfeiture statutes, which are the laws that permit the feds to sometimes get money or property that was involved in or obtained from certain crimes. And, here’s where it all comes back to the Kaley case accepted by the Supreme Court. That is the case where the Justices will need to answer the question of whether the feds can “restrain” a Defendant’s assets even before a trial, without the need for a hearing where the Defendant can challenge the prosecutor’s evidence. The expansion of forfeiture laws, which were mostly designed to go after dope dealers, is now being used against businesspeople like Mrs. Kaley, in a case that seems from the surface to be a contract dispute!

The right to counsel is important, whether or not a person has the assets to hire counsel, and regardless of whether the case is in State or federal court. We certainly hope that the Justices will recognize that Defendants in federal cases should have the right to use their assets to hire the specialists needed to defend matters in federal court, which is just as important as providing counsel for those without such assets.