November 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Court Ruling Lets Defendants Bargain With Assets Critics Say Decision Gives The Wealthy Chance To Purchase Lenient Sentences


By all accounts, drug dealer Joseph Libretti got a good deal during a 1992 Wyoming trial when he pleaded guilty to one crime and agreed to surrender $410,000 in property to the U.S. government.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but his bargain with the government saved him from serving 50 years behind bars for a weapons offense and paying a potential fine of up to $2 million.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court approved the deal.

The ruling appears to make it easier for prosecutors and criminal defendants to reach agreements that permit the forfeiture of property to which the government may not be legally entitled.

The high court, rejecting Libretti’s complaint about the breadth of his bargain, ruled that the trial judge was not required to conduct a hearing to be certain that all property to be forfeited was linked to the defendant’s crimes, as the law requires.

Nor did the judge have to inform Libretti that he was waiving his right to a jury trial on the forfeiture issue, the high court said.

Such safeguards are not required by law, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concluded.

The reason, O’Connor explained, is that Congress “plainly intended forfeiture of assets to operate as punishment for criminal conduct in violation of federal drug and racketeering laws, not as a separate … offense.”

Some lawyers said the decision could lead to bargaining abuses by prosecutors and hurt innocent purchasers of forfeited property.

Moreover, they said, rich defendants would get another unfair advantage.

Indeed, Justice John Paul Stevens observed in a dissenting opinion, “It is not unthinkable that a wealthy defendant might bargain for a light sentence by voluntarily ‘forfeiting’ property to which the government had no statutory entitlement.”

In response, O’Connor noted that the judge in the Libretti case was satisfied after four days of trial testimony that the forfeited items - land, two condominiums, two cars, guns, a diamond ring, a mobile home and tens of thousands of dollars in cash, checks and bonds - were tainted by Libretti’s marijuana and cocaine transactions from 1984 to 1992.

His deal also called for future confiscation of assets up to $1.5 million.

Duke University law professor Sara Sun Beale, who represented Libretti on appeal, called for a revision of the law “to give some protection so people don’t give up things they don’t have to give up.”

After all, she asked rhetorically, “what would you give away to save 30 years on a sentence - your firstborn?”

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