Related topics

Court Rules Government May Confiscate Money from Criminal Defendants

June 22, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today the government may confiscate from criminal defendants money and property they intended to use to pay their legal fees.

The justices, in separate 5-4 votes in cases from Virginia and New York, handed federal prosecutors a major victory in their fight against illegal drug dealing.

The court said a defendant’s constitutional rights to due process and to be represented by a lawyer in a criminal case are not violated when profits of an allegedly illegal enterprise are seized.

Justice Byron R. White, who wrote for the court in both cases, said no one has a constitutional right ″to spend another person’s money for services rendered by an attorney, even if those funds are the only way that that defendant will be able to retain the attorney of his choice. The money, though in his possession, is not rightfully his.″

He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a dissenting opinion, said, ″It is unseemly and unjust for the government to beggar those it prosecutes in order to disable their defense at trial.″

He said the court ″should heed the warnings″ of federal trial judges who ″understand, perhaps far better than we, the devastating consequences of attorney’s fee forfeiture for the integrity of our adversarial system of justice.″

Blackmun was joined by Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

In one case decided today, the law firm of Caplin & Drysdale here was denied $170,000 in legal fees for representing Chistopher Reckmeyer. He pleaded guilty in 1985 in Virginia to charges stemming from what prosecutors said was his role as kingpin of a multi-million-dollar drug operation.

Reckmeyer was sentenced to 17 years in prison and was ordered to forfeit all proceeds from the drug deals. The seizure of the money left him without funds to pay Caplin & Drysdale.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Reckmeyer was not entitled to use any of the money to reimburse the law firm.

In the second case, the former Reagan administration appealed a ruling that would have allowed Peter Monsanto access to assets worth $400,000 to help him pay his lawyers.

Monsanto was convicted in New York City of charges he headed a heroin- selling ring.

The jury also had ordered him to forfeit to the government a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., valued at $335,000, a $30,000 cooperative apartment in the Bronx and $35,000 in cash.

But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year Monsanto could use the assets to pay legal fees incurred in his defense.

At issue in both cases were forfeiture provisions of key federal crime- fighting laws, including the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Act and the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations statute.

In other action, the court:

- Gave cities important new protection against big damage awards when they are accused of violating people’s civil rights.

By a 5-4 vote, the court narrowed the scope of a century-old civil rights law invoked by a former Dallas high school football coach who said he lost his job because he is white.

- Unanimously upheld a $200,000 libel award against Harte-Hanks Communications. However, its ruling did not appear to weaken significantly the news media’s protection against libel lawsuits by public officials and public figures.

The justices said a federal appeals court correctly ruled against Harte- Hanks because of a 1983 article in the Hamilton, Ohio, Journal-News. But the decision also said the appeals court issued a misleading opinion about the standards of reporting and investigation by the media.

- Made it easier for communities to turn down the volume on rock concerts, upholding New York City’s effort to avoid ear-splitting noise levels in Central Park.

The justices, by a 6-3 vote, said officials may require sponsors of rock concerts in the park’s Naumberg Acoustic Bandshell to use a sound system operated by a city-designated engineer.

In one of the forfeiture cases, Caplin & Drysdale and other attorneys argued that confiscating the assets of people when they are indicted will leave them too poor to pay their own lawyers.

But White today compared the plight of the accused drug dealer to that of a robbery suspect.

A robbery suspect has no constitutional right ″to use funds he has stolen from a bank to retain an attorney to defend him if he is apprehended,″ he said.

″If defendants have a right to spend forfeitable assets on attorney’s fees, why not on excercises of the (constitutional) right to speak, practice one’s religion or travel?″ White asked rhetorically.

Also, he said, a defendant’s assets may be frozen before conviction if there is probable cause to believe the money or property was obtained illegally.

The forfeiture cases are Caplin & Drysdale vs. U.S., 87-1729, and U.S. vs. Monsanto, 88-454.

Update hourly