United States Supreme Court Rules That Government Can Freeze Assets Intended to Pay For Criminal Counsel in Kaley v. United States

justice_court.jpegRecently, in Kaley v. United States, the United States Supreme Court dealt a blow to a criminal defendant’s ability to challenge the government’s pretrial seizure of assets by challenging the grand jury’s probable cause finding. This ruling paves the way for the federal government to make it even tougher for those accused of crimes to mount a sufficient defense.

In Kaley, Brian and Kerri Kaley were indicted on charges of conspiracy of theft and reselling of outmoded prescription medical devices. Prior to the indictment, the Kaleys found out about the grand jury indictment, hired an attorney, and began preparing a defense. In order to pay the attorney fees, the Kaleys sought a $500,000 line of equity and used the money to purchase a certificate of deposit.

However, due to the grand jury’s probable cause finding, the federal government requested a restraining order intending to freeze the couple’s assets. The federal government claimed that the certificate of deposit was made up of proceeds from the Kaleys’ supposed crimes, even though less than one third of the amount could be traced to claimed criminal activity. Brian and Kerri Kaley fought back, claiming that they needed the certificate of deposit in order to pay their chosen attorney, who had told them his fees would amount to $500,000, and because they disputed the finding of probable cause. The district court permitted the federal government’s restraining order without first holding a hearing on the matter.

The Kaleys appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed the restraining order, prompting the Kaleys to petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a six to three ruling, the Supreme Court found that the restraining order was valid based on an earlier ruling, United States v. Monsato, which determined that when there is probable cause to believe that assets are forfeitable, assets may be restrained before trial without violating the Constitution. Although such a seizure could prevent criminal suspects from spending the money on a criminal defense attorney of their choosing, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution only guarantees the right to competent counsel, not the right to spend money on the best counsel available.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the dissent, joined by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Breyer. Justice Roberts noted that a criminal defendant has “little but the Constitution and his attorney standing between him and prison.” He did not so much object to the finding that the government may freeze assets intended to pay an attorney as he did to the finding that a criminal defendant has no ability to challenge the government’s freezing of those assets. Justice Roberts pointed to the situation involving the Kaleys’ co-defendant to the charges: because her assets were not frozen and she could hire experienced counsel, she was acquitted on all charges after less than three hours of jury deliberation. Such an outcome was a good predictor of how the Kaleys’ case would end up if they had their chosen counsel to defend them. Now the outcome of their situation is unclear.

The Wolfe Law Firm has been providing legal services for nearly 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm provides services in the areas of personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy, and mediation. If you are looking for an experienced West Virginia criminal defense attorney, contact us today.

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