“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …”
-Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
In the spring of 2020, law enforcement agents working for the United States Postal Service violated that fundamental constitutional guarantee when they baselessly stopped, seized, and searched a set of four ordinary boxes containing thousands of Covid-19 face masks.
The masks belonged to René Quiñonez, who operates Oakland-based Movement Ink LLC, a small, family-run, social justice-focused screen-printing company. Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, organizers hired Movement Ink to rapidly print as many face masks as possible to distribute to protestors marching across the country. René, his family, employees, and friends worked night and day to hand-print each mask with political messages like “Stop Killing Black People.” When they finished, René packed the masks in ordinary brown boxes and shipped them overnight to organizers in Brooklyn, D.C., Minneapolis, and St. Louis.
But they didn’t arrive.
Instead, he and his clients were greeted by a disturbing “Alert” on the Postal Service website: “Seized by Law Enforcement.” René panicked. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He knew face masks were not illegal; in fact, at the time, they were required by law.
After René contacted his Congresswoman and went to the press, the real story came out. Claiming the completely ordinary boxes were somehow suspicious, the agents seized and searched them without ever getting a warrant, let alone having the probable cause necessary to obtain one.
As a result of this unconstitutional conduct, the masks arrived at their destinations multiple days (and several protests) late. This cast a pall of suspicion over René and Movement Ink. Some of René’s longstanding clients dropped him, and the organizers backed out of plans for future recurring apparel orders. To this day, Movement Ink is struggling to recover from these blows to its reputation and business. And René remains distraught at the unjust cloud of suspicion law enforcement hung over him, tarnishing his reputation and his efforts to align his business with his activism.
But René is not one to take an assault on his constitutional rights lying down. On June 2, 2022, René and Movement Ink partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California to hold the officers who baselessly seized and searched his mail accountable for violating his rights.
René and Movement Ink
René Quiñonez founded Movement Ink, his family-run screen-printing company based in Oakland, California, with a simple goal in mind: to support the social justice community while earning an honest living for his family. For years, he built the business printing t-shirts, hoodies, hats, and even onesies for toddlers with messages calling for justice and other political messages. As his business grew, he eventually opened a retail location in downtown Oakland.
The business was steadily growing, but then Covid-19 hit.
René and Movement Ink stayed in business because of a sudden spike for a new, hard-to-find product: screen-printed Covid-protective face masks. Thanks to the years René spent working with and supporting social justice organizations, he was the supplier of choice when organizers around the country began ordering thousands of Covid-protective masks bearing political messages for the mass protests that broke out following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Among the messages René printed were “Stop Killing Black People.”
As the pandemic raged and protests grew, René, his family, and at least a dozen employees and volunteers worked around the clock to print and ship thousands of masks around the country. This was hard, labor-intensive work. Every mask was hand prepared, pressed, and packaged to get masks delivered quickly for protection and protest.
“Seized by Law Enforcement”
On June 3, 2020, René packaged a second batch of masks in neat, nondescript, cleanly taped brown boxes—boxes no different than those from Amazon or Target, and no different from a first batch he shipped without incident just days before. The last box of the batch was stuffed so full that it bulged at the seams a bit. With protests happening daily, time was of the essence. He confirmed with the Post Office that if he paid extra for Priority Mail Express, they would arrive the next day for organizers in Brooklyn, D.C., Minneapolis, and St. Louis.
But this second batch of packages did not arrive on time. Instead, law enforcement agents seized them before they left Oakland. When René and his clients checked the tracking numbers, they were greeted by a cryptic and disturbing message: “Alert,” “Seized by Law Enforcement.”
The packages did not reach their intended destinations until June 6, having been held for more than 24 hours by the Postal Inspection Service (the law enforcement arm of the USPS) without reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a warrant.
This unconstitutional seizure had a catastrophic impact on Movement Ink. Apparently worried that René was a target of law enforcement, the organizers around the country terminated talks for future orders. Instead of becoming a leading supplier of political Covid-protective masks and other political apparel, René became an outcast, with a substantial, steady revenue opportunity gone—and his efforts to aid the protest movement sullied.
René contacts U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee
Worried about the surveillance and free speech implications of these seizures, René was determined to get to the bottom of what happened. His congressional representative, Barbara Lee, submitted an official inquiry to USPS, expressing concerns over the seizures.
USPS officials responded to Rep. Lee with a letter claiming there was no political motivation, but effectively conceding the lack of any reasonable suspicion—let alone probable cause—for the seizure and search of the packages. The letter explained that the packages were seized and searched “solely because the external physical characteristics of the parcels were consistent with parcels in other non-related instances that were confirmed to contain nonmailable matter, specifically controlled substances.” In other words, USPS said that it was justified in seizing and opening plain brown boxes simply because they resembled packages that in the past contained drugs.
To add insult to injury, the letter falsely asserted that USPS assisted René in obtaining a refund for the cost of the mailings—which it did not do.
René files Freedom of Information Act requests
Shocked by the federal postal officials’ insistence that they could seize and search property simply because they did not like the packages’ “external physical characteristics” (which, recall, were nondescript brown, taped boxes), René submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to uncover underlying documents and communications related to the seizures of his political mask shipments.
These documents confirmed what René already knew: There was no lawful reason to seize, detain, or search René’s packages.
First, the internal postal system notes documenting the seizures indicate that the officials inexplicably claimed that the packages were “sent from Eureka”—a city 275 miles north of Oakland, in a region informally known as the “Emerald Triangle” because it is the largest cannabis-producing region in the country. But that made no sense, because the shipping label clearly stated that the parcels originated from René and Movement Ink in Oakland. Second, the internal postal system notes documenting the seizures show that the officials knew that the packages contained—in the officials’ own words—“BLM MASKS,” leaving no doubt that they knew the packages’ political contents.
Third, the internal postal system notes documenting the seizures provide no legitimate reasons for the seizure and detention of the masks. For example, one justification indicated the packages were “frequently mailed parcels from the same sender/address.” But being a business that frequently ships packages is obviously not reasonable suspicion.
Another justification explained that the packages were “taped or glued on all seams.” But, again, secure packaging is not reasonable suspicion.
Yet another justification said that the “parcel destination is a known drug trafficking area.” But if Brooklyn, D.C., Minneapolis, and St. Louis are known drug trafficking areas, then so is nearly every other heavily populated city in America. Using this justification, police could stop and seize practically any box shipped between two cities.
The final justification for the seizures said they were “mailed from a known drug source area,” which, again, could apply to any major city (and was apparently not even based on an accurate assessment of where the packages originated).
In other words, even taking the USPS agents’ justifications at their word, the government’s actions clearly violated René’s Fourth Amendment rights.
René seeks to hold the officials accountable
René is not one to take an assault on his constitutional rights lying down. On June 2, 2022, he teamed up with the Institute for Justice and filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California against the officers who unconstitutionally seized and searched his mail.
The lawsuit argues that the USPS officials violated René’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights when they seized, detained, and searched his mail without reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a warrant. While the bar for reasonable suspicion is unjustly low, even this low bar—let alone the much higher bar for probable cause—cannot be met merely on the basis of the factors listed in the FOIA documents. That is especially true given that the most cursory investigation would have confirmed that the packages were not mailed from Eureka, but that they came from Movement Ink in Oakland.
The lawsuit also argues that the USPS officials violated René’s clearly established First Amendment rights to the extent that they retaliated against him for his political speech. The FOIA documents, after all, show that the officers knew they were detaining political masks at the height of protests against police violence. USPS should not be allowed to interfere with political messages, regardless of their content or whatever viewpoint they express, on any matter of vital public importance
The litigation team
Institute for Justice Attorneys Jaba Tsitsuashvili and Patrick Jaicomo represent René Quiñonez and Movement Ink LLC.
The Institute for Justice
Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is a national public-interest law firm that brings constitutional lawsuits across the country. IJ is dedicated to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult to hold government officials and their employers accountable for violating the Constitution. Our efforts include direct lawsuits against government officials at all stages of litigation (such as our cases on behalf of Sylvia Gonzalez, Erma Wilson, Cassi Pollreis, Hamdi Mohamud, and Kevin Byrd), appellate briefs in support of individuals who have suffered at the hands of government officials, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of suing governments and their employees for violating individual rights. We do all this because of our fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it.