WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the government may seize money and assets from indicted drug defendants and leave them without the funds to hire an attorney.
The two 5-4 decisions mean that drug dealers, who once could use their cash to retain a team of high-priced lawyers, now may find themselves appearing in court as paupers asking for the aid of public defenders.
The decisions, in cases from Virginia and New York, uphold a 1984 law that gave narcotics agents and prosecutors the authority to confiscate the huge profits reaped by drug merchants. Armed with pretrial court orders, officials may lay claim to houses, cars, boats, businesses and bank accounts owned by people indicted on charges of being drug dealers.
LAPD Collects Millions
The result has been a bonanza for law enforcement officials in many jurisdictions, including Southern California. Since 1985, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department has seized more than $100 million in drug-related assets. But one question remained about these forfeiture orders: Is it legal and constitutional to deprive a defendant of the money needed to hire an attorney?
The justices said Thursday that it is. Nothing in the law or the Constitution, they said, permits a defendant to use tainted funds to pay for a lawyer.
Just as a bank robber fleeing with a satchel of money may not claim that he has a right to keep some of the money to pay for a lawyer, a drug dealer may not claim that he has a constitutional right to use drug proceeds to pay for his defense, Justice Byron R. White said.
In enacting the 1984 law, "Congress decided to give force to that old adage that 'crime does not pay.' We find no evidence that Congress intended to modify that nostrum to read, 'crime does not pay, except for attorney's fees,' " White said.
Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh called the ruling "a notable victory in the federal government's war on drugs." Since 1985, federal officials have seized more than $600 million in cash and others assets from drug merchants and used some of the money to build new prisons, Thornburgh said.
According to congressional sponsors of the 1984 Crime Forfeiture Act, drug dealers had an unfair advantage in court because they could use their ill-gotten assets to hire the best legal talent. But now, defense lawyers said Thursday, the balance is tipped unfairly in favor of the government.
American Bar Assn. President Robert Raven said that the decisions "seriously weaken our criminal justice adversarial system and impede a person's basic right to retain counsel of his or her choice." The ABA, which represents 350,000 lawyers, said that it will urge Congress to revise the law.
"This decision means you can be made into a pauper just because the government makes an accusation against you," Miami lawyer Joseph Beeler said. "They can take your home, your car and your bank account and not even leave you the money to write a check to your landlord. And you can't even get a lawyer to fight back and defend yourself."
Extends Beyond Drug Cases
Beeler, who filed a court brief on behalf of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the ruling extends beyond drug cases. Although the 1984 law was directed at drug crimes, the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act also authorizes pretrial forfeiture orders for defendants who are accused of having engaged in a "pattern of racketeering."
Under terms of the controversial RICO statute, racketeering is defined to include everything from murder and extortion to mail fraud or securities fraud. The court's rulings Thursday upholding the forfeiture orders in the drug cases clear away any doubt about the legality of forfeitures under the RICO statute as well, lawyers said.
The federal appellate courts in the two cases had split on whether defendants may be stripped of their ability to hire their own lawyers.
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York had ruled that Congress did not mean--and the Constitution did not allow--a prosecutor to take away all of a defendant's assets. This ruling invalidated a pretrial seizure of more than $400,000 in assets from Peter Monsanto, who was accused of being a heroin dealer.
However, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reached an opposite conclusion, saying that the Washington law firm of Caplan & Drysdale could not keep $170,000 in legal fees paid by Christopher Reckmeyer, a convicted drug kingpin.
White, in two opinions, said that the 1984 law was "plain and unambiguous" and that it said nothing about exempting lawyers' fees from forfeiture orders. Moreover, although the Sixth Amendment gives a person a right to have a lawyer, it does not give him the right to use money that "is not rightfully his" to pay for such services, he said.
Defendants who are acquitted may keep or recover their assets.