IJ Uncovers Conspiracy by Federal Cops in California  

Mike Greenberg
Mike Greenberg  ·  October 1, 2022

When it comes to civil forfeiture, we at IJ thought we had seen every kind of abuse. But the plot we exposed during our class action challenge to the FBI’s raid of a California safe deposit box company astonished even us.  

Devoted Liberty & Law readers will remember how this case began last year: When federal law enforcement suspected the company US Private Vaults of wrongdoing, it got a warrant to search its storefront and seize its business assets. But the FBI had no suspicion that any box renter had done anything wrong, which is why the warrant specified that it did “not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.” In fact, the FBI promised that when its agents would open renters’ safe deposit boxes, they would inspect them no more than needed to determine who the owner was to facilitate the contents’ return. 

But the FBI ignored that limitation. Instead, it rummaged through and seized the contents of every box even when the owner’s name was printed on the outside of the box. It systematically ran cash found inside boxes past drug sniffing dogs. And rather than return property to many box renters, it moved to keep over $100 million it seized in cash, precious metals, and jewelry through civil forfeiture.  

Once IJ sued, we got all our clients’ property back after handing the government a series of early judicial bludgeonings.  

But we weren’t done. The FBI created various records during its dragnet search, including notes, photographs, and videos depicting the contents of every renter’s box. So IJ asked the court to declare that the government’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment and to order the government to destroy all records created from its wrongful intrusion.  

In pressing that claim, we uncovered something shocking. When questioned under oath, FBI officials admitted that they planned to take box renters’ property through forfeiture months before the raid. The head of the forfeiture unit at the FBI’s Los Angeles office testified that, before ever applying for the warrant, the FBI had determined it would move to permanently forfeit everything inside the boxes worth more than $5,000. It made that determination without even knowing who the box renters were or what (if anything) they’d done wrong. And it hid this plan from the magistrate in applying for its warrant, claiming instead that it simply wanted to reunite renters with their property.  

And, you might ask, why $5,000? It turns out $5,000 is the FBI’s minimum monetary threshold for forfeitures as moving through the forfeiture process costs about that much in labor and paperwork. In other words, the FBI planned to forfeit the contents of every box so long as it would profit from doing so. 

If this case confirms anything, it is that civil forfeiture turns cops into robbers. With the case now fully briefed, we expect that the court’s decision will also confirm that the FBI’s actions egregiously violated the Constitution—and serve as a stark reminder of federal officials’ duty to respect Americans’ property rights.

 Michael Greenberg is an IJ attorney.

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