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Federal Judge Deals Another Blow to FBI in U.S. Private Vaults Raid

The Institute for Justice took another major step forward in its effort to hold the government to account for an FBI raid that broke open hundreds of individual security deposit boxes at U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills business. On October 12, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner held that IJ’s Fourth Amendment challenge to the government’s search can proceed as a class action, meaning that IJ will represent not just its individual clients but also a broader class of U.S. Private Vaults customers.

FBI agents raided the U.S. Private Vaults facility in March 2021, and they rummaged through the contents of every box in the vault. The government attempted to justify the raid on the ground that U.S. Private Vaults—the business—was being charged with federal crimes, but none of the individual box holders were charged. And the warrant authorizing the search specifically said that the government was not authorized to conduct a criminal search of the individual security deposit boxes. Yet, nonetheless, the government opened every box, made a video record of the contents, and even opened sealed envelopes and held documents up to the camera.

The government cannot search your private property when it cannot even say what you might have done wrong. That’s what the Fourth Amendment means when it protects the right to be “secure” in your “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” So, in May, IJ sued on behalf of box holders Paul and Jennifer Snitko, Joseph Ruiz, and Tyler Gothier.

On the eve of the lawsuit, the government doubled down on its constitutional violations by moving to take the contents of hundreds of boxes through civil forfeiture. In the weeks that followed, IJ added more named plaintiffs to the suit and started scoring legal victories. The federal judge first granted a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction preventing the government from forfeiting the property of IJ’s clients without giving them a proper notice that made it clear what the government was claiming they had done wrong.

The government ultimately abandoned its forfeiture claims against all of IJ’s clients and finished returning their seized property (other than $2,000 that the government still owes) on October 1.

But that isn’t the end of the case: The government still has the records that it made during its illegal search—including its video recordings—and IJ is seeking to compel the government to destroy those records.

That remaining claim goes to the very heart of the case. While the judge’s rulings so far have addressed the government’s actions after it searched the security deposit boxes, this final claim asks the judge to rule that the government should not have opened the boxes at all.

And now the judge’s most recent decision, certifying a class, further raises the stakes for that final claim. The judge certified a class consisting of all U.S. Private Vaults customers whose property was seized and subsequently returned, and, if IJ ultimately prevails, the government will be compelled to destroy the records that it made for all of those boxes.

The members of the certified class are, by definition, people whom the government has not accused of wrongdoing. After all, the government has returned their property. The government never should have opened up their security deposit boxes, and it certainly should not be allowed to retain the records that it made during that illegal search.

Everyone has the right to contract for a private, secure place to store their property. But no place can be secure if the government gets away with what it did here. Holding the government to account is critical to prevent the government from doing this to other security deposit box owners, storage unit renters or anyone else who rents a private space. And, with this recent ruling, IJ will continue to press forward to see that the Fourth Amendment is upheld.

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