Everyone has the right to contract for a safe, private place to store their property. That’s what Jeni Pearsons and Michael Storc wanted for their retirement nest egg. But now Jeni, Michael, and hundreds of other innocent people must fight to keep what’s theirs after the federal government broke into their safe deposit boxes, rifled through their belongings—and stole them all.
Jeni and Michael live in Los Angeles. Seeking to diversify their savings, they bought a few hundred dollars of silver whenever they had extra cash. To keep their property safe, they rented a safe deposit box at a California company called U.S. Private Vaults.
Unbeknownst to Jeni and Michael, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles alleged that U.S. Private Vaults violated federal law. The government decided to search the company’s property and seize items connected to the business. Though it suspected the company of wrongdoing, there was no reason to suspect any individual box holder of wrongdoing. The government promised it would not search anyone’s box and obtained a warrant that specifically “[did] not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.”
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The government lied. Upon executing the warrant, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents rummaged through the contents of every owner’s box. They ran any cash they found by drug-sniffing dogs, tore open sealed envelopes, and made copies of documents. They took video of their search through heirlooms and other possessions. Though their search authority was explicitly limited to determining a box’s owner in order to return property, agents opened and searched a box even when information about the owner was clearly provided. In the end, they seized everyone’s belongings.
The FBI defied its warrant and box holders’ Fourth Amendment rights—and it gets worse. The federal government compounded its illegal search and seizure with an illegal cash grab. After holding renters’ property for several months, the government moved to take more than $85 million in cash and millions more in precious metals and jewelry stolen from Jeni, Michael, and nearly 400 others using civil forfeiture.
So Jeni, Michael, and several other box holders teamed up with IJ to launch a class action lawsuit challenging the government’s raid as an illegal search and its attempted forfeitures as unconstitutional under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
We won an early victory less than a month after we filed suit when a federal court granted us a temporary restraining order against the government, noting that there is “no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property whatsoever.” We will expand this victory to ensure that every individual who had property seized in the raid is afforded the protections the Constitution guarantees.
Robert Frommer is an IJ senior attorney.