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A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order blocking the FBI from continuing the forfeiture process on the contents of plaintiffs’ safe deposit boxes without charging them with a crime.
Last week, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner halted the FBI’s plans to confiscate roughly $85 million worth of cash, gold and silver, jewelry, and other valuables from boxes rented from U.S. Private Vaults, a private company in California.
Klausner ruled that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect against the unmerited seizure of property and that the government is required to cite the “specific statutory provision” that allows it to take property. He wrote, “This notice, put bluntly, provides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property whatsoever.”
While U.S. Private Vaults has been indicted for conspiring to sell drugs, launder money, and carry out cash transactions to avoid detection, the FBI has provided no evidence that the customers whose deposit boxes it chose to confiscate are guilty of any wrongdoing.
The search warrant granted to the FBI permitted the organization to seize business computers, money counters, and the nests of safety deposit boxes and keys, but it explicitly stated that authority was not granted for a criminal search and seizure of the contents of the boxes.
The FBI ignored that direction. In violation of the warrant, the FBI not only conducted criminal searches, but it seized the contents of hundreds of safety deposit boxes and has failed to return the contents to many of the owners.
Four customers filed suit against the FBI, leading to the temporary restraining order, which the judge ruled was also a violation of due process. These include Joseph Ruiz, who had $57,000 in life savings, all obtained through legal settlements, confiscated from his box; other boxholders had family heirlooms, collectible coins, gold and silver, “rainy day funds,” and “precious items” with only sentimental value taken.
Robert Frommer, an attorney for Institute for Justice (IJ), which is representing the plaintiffs, described the FBI’s actions as the “most outrageous Fourth Amendment abuse that the Institute for Justice has ever seen. It is like the government breaking into every apartment in a building because the landlord was dealing drugs in the lobby.”
In a statement, he added,
“Hundreds of innocent people have had their lives turned upside down by the government’s $85 million cash grab. This order squarely rejects the government’s ‘anemic notices’ as an unconstitutional attempt to take box holders’ property for no good reason…. Government officials can’t permanently take your property without first saying what you’ve done wrong. This ruling should lead the FBI to abandon its efforts to steal over $85 million through civil forfeiture.”
The FBI’s already damaged reputation continues to take a beating — and it’s no one’s fault but their own. The law enforcement organization has developed a habit of running roughshod over constitutional rights to pursue its agenda.
Whether U.S. Private Vaults has committed crimes remains to be seen, but the idea that the government would take people’s property without providing any evidence of criminal behavior or charging them with a crime is hard to fathom.
Our system of assuming that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and our Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections mean that the onus is on the prosecution to prove someone has committed a crime. Simply having your belongings in a deposit box at a business that is suspected of a crime does not make you a criminal and the government had no right to seize their property — especially when the judge who issued the search warrant explicitly told the FBI not to do it.
It is concerning to see such blatant disregard for due process by the FBI, but encouraging to see that, at least in this case, our system of checks and balances works and that these citizens’ civil liberties have been protected.