Nation - New York Use of seized cash for legal fees spurs NYC debate Couple drew on about $550,000 in forfeited assets to pay lawyers

By Jennifer Peltz

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- When lawyer Louis Posner pleaded guilty to fostering prostitution at his strip club, he agreed authorities could ask to keep as much as $260,400 seized as profits of crime.

Already Posner had spent funds seized in the investigation on his legal bills and living expenses while apparently continuing to frequent exotic dance clubs.

Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus approved Posner's payment requests, though the judge called it troubling that despite "protestations of dire financial need, Louis Posner has appeared to have regularly and recently frequented lap and strip clubs." Posner's lawyer said Posner was only getting taken out for a cheeseburger.

As Posner faces sentencing, his court-sanctioned use of seized money has spurred complaints from police and prompted prosecutors to stop agreeing to the payment of defense lawyers' fees from seized funds, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has criticized.

Posner, 53, admitted last month he helped turn his Hot Lap Dance Club into a hive of prostitution to boost its profits and dallied with the dancers himself in exchange for giving them permission to work or other benefits. He also admitted making a phony report that police had tried to extort thousands of dollars from him.

As part of the plea negotiations, prosecutors agreed to drop charges against Posner's wife, Betty, who was accused of helping hide the club's proceeds. The plea deal calls for 60 days of community service and acknowledges the $260,400 is subject to forfeiture. It also calls for Posner to stay out of strip clubs for the next five years.

Forfeited assets give law enforcement the prospect of repaying crime victims, raising money for new investigations and depriving criminals of ill-gotten gains. Some agencies regularly hold auctions of forfeited goods.

About $550,000 was seized from the Posners when they were arrested. But as the case unfolded, the couple tapped the seized cash to pay lawyers, an investigator, an accounting expert and living expenses -- payments the court recently approved again over objections from police lawyers and prosecutors.

Louis Posner's attorneys say the arrangement is fair.

"It would really set an awful precedent if defendants who had money seized were then not provided with the counsel of their choice" because they couldn't afford it, Posner lawyer Joseph A. Bondy said Wednesday.

In approving the payments, the judge cited criminal defendants' right to the lawyers of their choice, derived from the constitution's Sixth Amendment.

But the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to access seized or frozen funds to pay legal fees, saying the right to choose an attorney doesn't mean defendants are entitled to use allegedly illicit profits to pay for one.

A New York judge noted in a 1991 decision that state courts have traditionally taken a broader view than their federal counterparts of defendants' right to an attorney.

New York Police Department lawyers say in court filings that the cash seized in the Posner case amounts to "proceeds of criminality" that should be forfeited, not spent for the Posners' benefit.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office initially consented to letting the Posners draw on seized funds to pay their attorneys, though not other expenses. But after police lawyers complained, prosecutors said last month they were changing their position and opposing all the payments.

Assistant District Attorney Tara Christie Miner urged a judge to reject Louis Posner's latest bid for money to pay his bills. "It would be an extraordinary decision for this court to hold that illegally possessed funds ... are property of the defendant for these purposes," Miner wrote last month.

Published: Fri, Apr 23, 2010