Appeals Court Shuts The Vault Door On FBI Overreach

Robert Frommer
Robert Frommer  ·  April 1, 2024

In a huge win for property and privacy rights, the 9th Circuit issued a scathing verdict against the FBI in IJ’s class action lawsuit on behalf of safe deposit box renters including Paul and Jennifer Snitko. The ruling shows how the FBI violated the Fourth Amendment rights of hundreds of Americans and underscores the need for Congress to rein in “policing for profit” once and for all. 

In March 2021, the FBI raided US Private Vaults, a Los Angeles safe deposit box company. Although the warrant’s target was only the business itself, the FBI used the opportunity to search hundreds of customers’ boxes and the property inside, even though the warrant expressly said it did not authorize a criminal search or seizure of any boxes. 

Why such overreach? Easy: At stake was over $100 million in cash, gold, and jewels. The FBI admitted under oath that, months before the raid, it had already decided to seize and attempt to forfeit everything worth more than $5,000—despite not knowing whom that property belonged to or what, if anything, its owners had done wrong.

The 9th Circuit didn’t mince words, likening the FBI’s actions to the British colonial government’s abuses that prompted the drafting of the Fourth Amendment. It held that the FBI violated the Fourth Amendment by drafting up special, one-time-only instructions for agents conducting the raid. Moreover, the FBI violated the warrant by committing the very sort of criminal search the warrant forbade. 

US Private Vaults was a test run; if the FBI got away with this fishing expedition, other agencies would soon be launching copycat raids. And that’s why the court’s ruling (or “spanking,” as The Wall Street Journal phrased it) not only vindicates our clients’ rights but is a clear warning to other government agencies to never do what the FBI did here.

This victory is a testament to our clients, particularly Paul Snitko. Going up against the FBI can be terrifying. Most box holders just wanted to hide, to file “John Doe” complaints that would serve only their own ends. But not Paul and his wife Jennifer. They wanted to help everyone trapped in this nightmare. And to do that, they bravely stood up in front of dozens of cameras, said their names, and called the FBI to account. 

Sadly, Paul Snitko passed away after battling with cancer just before publication of this issue of Liberty & Law. But Paul’s legacy will endure. Behind his smiling face and kind demeanor lay the heart of a lion. His bravery empowered IJ to file this case, and his determination buoyed us after we lost in district court. The world is a far freer place today because Paul acted as a champion for liberty.

Congress can honor Paul’s valiance by passing the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, H.R. 1525. The Act would end “policing for profit” by directing all forfeiture funds to the U.S. Treasury instead of the agencies doing the seizing and forfeiting. It would give property owners access to real courts by eliminating administrative forfeiture, where agencies decide for themselves if they can keep seized funds. And it would stop state and local law enforcement from using federal civil forfeiture to evade state reforms (as in Nevada). 

The US Private Vaults case should be a wake-up call to Congress. The perverse financial incentives underlying civil forfeiture led the FBI into committing the biggest robbery in U.S. history. And if not for the courage of Paul, Jennifer, and IJ’s other clients, they may well have gotten away with it. By passing the FAIR Act, Congress can reaffirm its commitment to the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Robert Frommer is an IJ senior attorney.

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