Criminal Forfeiture is Taking the “Just” out of Justice: Kaley v. United States

Author: Cameron Downer, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

On February 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court in Kaley v. United States held that defendants are not constitutionally entitled to a pre-trial hearing to challenge a grand jury’s probable cause determination that they committed a crime. This decision means a grand jury determination is an appropriate trigger to allow forfeiture of the defendant’s property under 21 U.S.C. §853(e).[1] Justice Kagan, in her majority opinion, reasoned that since a grand jury indictment may lead to the pre-trial restraining of persons, it similarly has the power to deprive a person of his assets. Therefore, the grand jury may deprive someone of both liberty and property, even if that property is used to pay for the person’s attorney.

Although the Supreme Court hopes to prevent pitting judges against grand juries, the majority’s opinion in Kaley opens the door for prosecutorial abuse. Pre-trial forfeiture can now be used as a weapon by the prosecution to deprive a defendant of his counsel, without challenge. Considering a grand jury indictment is a mere “rubber stamp” in the perspective of the prosecution, the prosecution now has unfettered discretion to deprive a defendant of counsel, thus unfairly increasing the chances of successful prosecution.[2]

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