Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Denied Right to Counsel of His Choice

The Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel is one of the bedrock principles of the American justice system: all those charged with a crime are guaranteed the right to counsel.  If an individual charged with a crime cannot afford an attorney, since 1963 the Supreme Court has ruled that an attorney will be provided to him at no cost (Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)).  This attorney will either come in the form of a fulltime public defender or an attorney assigned by the court and paid by the hour.  In either situation, these attorneys have a very large caseload and limited resources to devote to each assigned client.  And now we come to the case of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman: extradited to the United States from Mexico in January of 2017, Guzman was provided federal public defenders at his first court appearance in the Eastern District of New York – despite the prosecutors claiming that his purported massive wealth did not entitle him to taxpayer-funded counsel.  After all, the government was concerned that the American taxpayer would be forced to foot the massive legal bill generated from the numerous indictments lodged against Guzman in six separate American jurisdictions.  Seven months later, the government is doing all that it can to prevent Mr. Guzman from hiring private counsel, ensuring that taxpayers will be forced to pay all legal expenses, as the first of up to six trials and appeals looms, in April of 2018.  

The Government’s Position on Mr. Guzman’s Legal Fees is Hypocritical 

Throughout the seven months of Mr. Guzman’s detention, the government has argued that Mr. Guzman should be required to hire private defense counsel.  Yet when we approached the government and informed them that we had been retained to represent Mr. Guzman, they balked: they would not assure us that the fee paid to us by Mr. Guzman would not be forfeited down the road – or even not seized as soon as we received it, as it is now their position that Mr. Guzman cannot use criminal proceeds to hire us.  What sane defense attorney would come into a case of this magnitude with the real possibility that he will not only not be paid but may be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his pocket to fund the investigation and other expenses associated with the trial?

Nevertheless, the government had demanded that Mr. Guzman hire private counsel – yet it will not guarantee that private counsel can actually keep the fee.  The hypocrisy of its position exposed, the government is effectively denying Mr. Guzman the use of his funds to be used to retain the counsel of his choice – while disputing his right to court-appointed attorneys.  Furthermore, the government has actually not frozen a penny of Mr. Guzman’s alleged criminal proceeds up until this point.  So any money his chosen defense counsel seeks to use for legal fees for this approximate four month trial is not money coming from assets which could arguably revert to the government upon a conviction.  By refusing to allow Mr. Guzman to hire his chosen defense counsel, the government is saddling taxpayers with legal fees from up to six trials (and possibly appeals) in the tens of millions of dollars – and forcing Mr. Guzman to use public defenders.  Not surprisingly, the steady government drumbeat insisting that the defendant is not permitted to taxpayer-funded attorneys has suddenly grown silent: now it seems just fine that taxpayers pay for Mr. Guzman’s counsel, as long as it is not the counsel of his choice.  In the end the American public loses twice: not only will it be forced to pay for Mr. Guzman’s massive legal bills, but it will also very possibly see Joaquin Guzman denied justice at what will ultimately be an internationally-watched inquisition, with Guzman denied his right to his chosen attorneys who are willing to step in today for him without costing the taxpayers a penny.

Jeffrey Lichtman has received the highest rating (AV) from the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, is recognized in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers and has also been selected as a New York City Super Lawyer for being a leader in his field of criminal defense. Mr. Lichtman has received a rating of 10.0/10 Superb rating from Avvo Lawyer Directory and was profiled in the New York Daily News, The New York Times as part of the “Public Lives” series, New York Magazine and Ozy. He can be reached at (212) 581-1001.