ASSET SEIZURES

money
The feds have seized Lacey and Larkin's assets in a bid to impoverish their defense. (Pictures of Money via Flickr)
Prosecutors seized nearly all of Lacey and Larkin's assets, liening their properties, and seizing more than $10 million in attorneys' funds, forcing some lawyers to abandon the case.

When the FBI arrested veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin on April 6, 2018, charging them in federal court in Phoenix with violations of the U.S. Travel Act, the federal government seized almost all of Lacey and Larkin’s assets via federal courts in California, including money that predated their ownership of Backpage.com.

Family members’ funds were also seized. Liens were placed on Lacey and Larkin’s properties, preventing them from being sold or rented. Art was ripped from the walls of their homes, and cars and other personal property were confiscated by federal agents.

Both men were imprisoned for more than a week and only allowed out on bonds of $1 million a piece, with ankle monitors to be worn 24/7.

Additionally, more than $10 million set aside in defense lawyers’ trust accounts was seized by the government. Such seizures of attorneys’ funds are almost unheard of, according to legal experts, save in major narcotics cases.

This unprecedented act further impoverished the defense, forcing attorneys to withdraw from the case. Three of Lacey and Larkin’s four co-defendants now have, at government expense, court-appointed counsel.

Meanwhile, according to court records, the government’s star witness, former Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, was allowed to access and use $2.3 million of similar funds that were set aside for his defense. Court filings also say Ferrer and his ex-wife were allowed to keep their respective houses in Texas.

Ferrer, who purchased Backpage from Lacey and Larkin in 2015, copped a plea deal with the feds. In exchange for his cooperation, the government allowed Ferrer to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy, and to plead guilty on behalf of Backpage for one count of money laundering.

Michael Piccaretta, a Tucson defense attorney who had to leave the defense team due to the seizures, told FPC that the money Ferrer was allowed to utilize had the “same source” as for the other defendants because Ferrer “played ball with the government.”

Asset seizure is a controversial tactic that many legal scholars consider to be unconstitutional. It allows the state to take funds from people who are not convicted of a crime and, often, people who have not been charged with a crime.

In the Lacey/Larkin case, the seizures implicate the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, the 6th Amendment right to counsel and the First Amendment’s restriction on prior restraint. Lacey and Larkin’s attorneys fought the seizures all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals but were unsuccessful in gaining access to the much-needed funds.

The seizure case remains on hold in federal court in California, pending the outcome of the criminal trial in Arizona. Below are links to FPC’s coverage of the seizures

FPC Articles on Asset Seizures

Backpage Defense Team Wages First Amendment Battle on Two Fronts, October 9, 2018

Federal Judges in Two Jurisdictions Play ‘Hot Potato’ with Seized Backpage Attorneys’ Fees, November 20, 2018

Ninth Circuit Hears First Amendment Challenge to Feds’ Seizure of Millions from Backpage’s Former Owners, July 8, 2019

Ninth Circuit Shoots Down Feds’ Bid to Dismiss Lacey/Larkin Appeal of Asset Seizures, April 11, 2020

Lacey/Larkin Shred Feds’ Blueprint for Censorship in Asset Seizure Fight, May 27, 2020

First Amendment First Down: Ninth Circuit Sets Date for Oral Arguments in Lacey/Larkin Case (w/Update), June 10, 2020

Ninth Circuit Panel Dismisses Appeal of Asset Seizures in Lacey/Larkin Case for Lack of Jurisdiction, August 28, 2020

FBI Violates Fourth Amendment, Returns Some Personal Property to Lacey/Larkin, September 11, 2020

Lacey/Larkin Defense Asks Judge to Release Portion of Illegally-Seized Assets, November 18, 2021

Judge Denies Defense Motion to Free Funds Seized by Government in Lacey/Larkin Case, December 13, 2021

Parties in Backpage Trial Prepare to Battle over Seized Assets, November 3, 2023

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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