After Gold Coins Go Missing, IJ Goes Looking for FBI Accountability
Retired civil servant Don Mellein was worried about the future. So he stashed his retirement savings—including cash and 110 gold coins—in a safe place: a private safe deposit box at U.S. Private Vaults (USPV) in Southern California.
But keeping your stuff safe from criminals doesn’t mean it’s safe from the government. The FBI raided USPV and broke into hundreds of boxes belonging to innocent people. IJ has already sued the FBI over this abusive dragnet search and the FBI’s “forfeit first, ask questions later” approach to the valuables it pilfered, and those cases are ongoing.
But Don and other USPV renters also experienced another all-too-common abuse. When the government finally returned his property, Don’s gold coins had disappeared. Eventually, the FBI mysteriously “found” 47 of the coins, but Don is still short 63 coins—worth over $100,000. The FBI has never explained what happened.
Ordinarily, if you snatch someone’s property and then lose it, you’re on the hook. But the government is different. It shields its agents with qualified (or absolute) immunity—and shields itself with sovereign immunity. That makes fighting back all but impossible for ordinary people. Don, for instance, spent $40,000 just to get part of his property back; fighting for his remaining coins could easily exhaust his retirement funds. And when smaller amounts disappear, most people just give up.
The results are predictable. The perverse incentives of civil forfeiture drive law enforcement to seize as much property as possible. But there’s no incentive to safeguard property in case it needs to be returned, since no one is ever accountable for losing it. The result is that even people who successfully navigate the complex civil forfeiture process might not get their property back.
That’s why Don has teamed up with IJ to hold the FBI accountable for losing his property. By fighting against the government’s patchwork of immunities and defenses, Don hopes not only to get his property back but also to make it easier for other civil forfeiture victims to get justice in the future.
Joe Gay is an IJ attorney.
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