Challenge to pretrial seizures gets hearing

Foe: Tactic hurts defendants' ability to hire lawyer

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MIAMI — Federal prosecutors can legally grab, with a judge's nod, the assets of criminal defendants before trial.

On Wednesday, a Miami criminal defense attorney will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that the tactic — long a powerful tool for prosecutors — violates the constitutional rights of defendants.

With their assets frozen until a trial's outcome, they're effectively being stripped of the ability to hire the defense lawyer of their choice.

That will be the thrust of Howard Srebnick's argument Wednesday morning, when he appears for the first time before the nine Supreme Court justices. Their ruling, in a South Florida white-collar criminal case, could affect countless federal prosecutions nationwide.

Srebnick will argue that defendants should be allowed to keep their bank accounts and other possessions unless prosecutors can show before trial that the evidence supporting an indictment justifies the seizure of those assets.

For decades, prosecutors have only needed to point to a federal grand jury indictment to argue that defendants' assets are traceable to the criminal allegations and therefore can be seized. And judges have almost always ruled in the prosecution's favor because of the presumption that the grand jury found "probable cause" that a crime was committed.

Eventually, depending on whether a defendant is found guilty or is acquitted, frozen assets are either kept or returned by the government.

In legal briefs, Srebnick has asked the Supreme Court to allow a hearing that would test the strength of the prosecution's evidence before a jury hears the government's case against his two clients, a New York couple. Kerri and Brian Kaley were charged in 2007 with illegally profiting from the resale of older medical devices in South Florida's "gray market." The equipment had been given to the wife and other equipment sales representatives by hospitals that no longer needed them because they purchased newer devices.

The couple obtained a $500,000 equity line of credit on their home so they could pay projected legal fees to their "preferred" defense lawyers, Srebnick, and colleague, Susan Van Dusen, who claimed the government's case was "baseless." But after the couple's indictment, prosecutors obtained a judge's order to seize their home and other assets valued at nearly $2.2 million, leading to the Supreme Court case.

Srebnick argues that two constitutional amendments -- due process of law and right to counsel -- require that defendants such as his clients be given a pretrial hearing that would force prosecutors to establish the integrity of the indictment as a basis to seize the couple's assets.

If prosecutors fail to put forth compelling evidence, then "the assets needed for counsel of choice and legal expenses must be unfrozen," Srebnick argues in his briefs.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. will defend the practice as a way to prevent criminals from spending ill-gotten gains that could be returned to victims or the government.

In court briefs, he argues that the purpose of the existing law -- adopted by Congress in 1970 to target organized crime -- is to preserve the "availability of property" before trial that may ultimately be forfeited so that it is "not dissipated before a conviction."

The solicitor general points out that the law allows for a pretrial hearing to determine whether defendants' assets are "traceable" proceeds from their crimes, but that the hearing should not allow defense attorneys to challenge the "validity" of an indictment.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether defendants before trial have a "due process right to challenge the probable cause underlying the criminal charge," Verrilli wrote. "The Constitution guarantees no such right."