The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of Americans when it seized the contents from 1,400 safe deposit boxes during a 2021 raid on a Beverly Hills business, a federal appeals court ruled on January 23.
“This was a resounding victory, not just for our clients, but for the hundreds of people who’ve been stuck in a nightmare for years because of what the FBI did,” Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Rob Frommer, who represented several plaintiffs in the case, told Fox News.
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A panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the FBI violated plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures when the bureau cataloged the contents of 1,400 safe deposit boxes without obtaining individuals criminal warrants for each. The FBI did so as part of its investigation into a company called U.S. Private Vaults, which ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money and shut down.
The government argued before the federal appeals court that its warrant had authorized the bureau to seize and catalog the contents of the boxes, in accordance with its policy. However, unsealed court documents revealed that “neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office told the judge in their warrant request that agents planned to confiscate the contents of every box containing at least $5,000 in cash or belongings,” according to the report.
Instead, the warrant only authorized the seizure of business computers, money counters, and surveillance equipment, according to the report. The judge additionally allowed the seizure of safety deposit boxes and keys, however, agents were instructed only to “inspect the contents of the boxes in an effort to identify their owners…so that they can claim their property,” and that the warrant “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.”
“Agents took about $86 million in cash from the boxes in the March 2021 raid, as well as a trove of jewelry, gold bars and coins, silver and other valuables,” Fox News noted. “In May of that year, the FBI ‘commenced administrative forfeiture proceedings’ against an unspecified number of the boxes, according to court documents filed by the government.”
The Ninth’s Circuit’s January 23 ruling reversed a lower court decision siding with the FBI and ordered officials to destroy the inventory records of any of the box holders not charged with a crime.
Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote that the government’s reasoning for its actions could lead to the types of abusive searches conducted in colonial America.
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“At oral argument, for example, the government failed to explain why applying the inventory exception to this case would not open the door to the kinds of ‘writs of assistance’ the British authorities used prior to the Founding to conduct limitless searches of an individual’s personal belongings,” Smith Jr. wrote.
“It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place,” he added.
Jeni Pearsons, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, told Fox News the victory is “incredibly gratifying.”
“Hearing these judges just knock them down a peg and talk through the situation, this extraordinary overreach and an actual breaking of civil rights … it was just really, really gratifying,” Pearsons said.
The FBI had seized $20,000 in silver and $2,000 in cash during the raid from Pearson and her husband’s rented deposit box. Pearsons alleged that FBI had lost her $2,000 when she tried to reclaim it.
“I do think that the FBI is watching this case,” Pearsons said. “And I hope that if they do continue with civil forfeiture processes, that they put structure in place so that it’s transparent and that it’s not just a free-for-all all, which is what this seems to be.”
“It’s a free-for-all all within a ridiculous defense,” Pearsons added.
Frommer told the outlet that while he is pleased with the outcome of the case, he does not think it will “stop the FBI’s grasping hand.”
“Yeah, they got their hand slapped just now. But unless there’s real consequences, they’ll just view this as a dry run for the next time,” he said.
“The FBI declined to comment on the ruling. Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles declined to comment on the ruling but said the prosecutor’s office was ‘prepared to destroy records of the inventory search, which is the relief sought by the plaintiffs in the case’” according to the report.
The case is Snitko v. USA, No. 22-56050 is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.