The Supreme Court heard a case this week that underscores a disturbing fact about criminal law — the government can “freeze” your assets before a trial so you can’t hire a decent lawyer.
The nation’s highest court ruled back in 1989 that prosecutors could freeze your assets before a trial if there was a probable chance that you earned the money illegally, as The New York Times’ Adam Liptak explained.
However, the Supreme Court is reconsidering “pretrial asset seizure” in a new case accusing a former sales rep for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary and her husband of dealing in stolen medical devices. Prosecutors won a court ruling freezing the assets of that couple, Kerri and Brian Kaley.
In 2005, the Kaleys found out they were being targeted in a grand jury investigation and retained lawyers who said they’d charge them half a million dollars, according to SCOTUSBlog. They raised money by securing a $500,000 line of credit on their home. When the government froze their assets, however, they were unable to pay for their expensive legal representation.
The Kaleys — who were accused of taking prescription devices from hospitals and illicitly re-selling them — said they could prove their innocence if they had good lawyers, the Wall Street Journal reported. Jennifer Gruenstrass, another J&J sales representative who was indicted with them, did not have her assets seized, the Kaleys point out in a court filing, and she was acquitted.
The Supreme Court will decide whether people like the Kaleys have a right to a hearing to determine whether their assets can be frozen. (Presumably, the lawyers representing them in the Supreme Court case are working pro bono.) While the concept of asset seizure might sound dry, SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe has pointed out that the government can freeze people’s assets in order to win cases.
“[C]riminal forfeitures are a key part of the federal government’s efforts to prosecute crime — including because, by limiting a defendant’s ability to fight the charges against him,” she writes, “the pretrial restraining orders enhance the government’s ability to get either a guilty plea or a guilty verdict.”
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