Nationwide Class Action Takes Aim at FBI’s “Take Now, Explain Never” Forfeitures
Liberty & Law readers are well familiar with civil forfeiture, in which the government files lawsuits against property in order to keep it without ever charging its owner with a crime. But did you know there are civil forfeitures executed entirely by the same federal agencies that financially benefit from the forfeitures, with no judicial oversight?
They’re called administrative forfeitures, and IJ’s newest nationwide class action takes aim at the unconstitutional boilerplate notices agencies use to trick property owners into surrendering their rights.
IJ client Linda Martin has been stuck in FBI administrative forfeiture for two years. She inadvertently got caught up in the FBI’s raid on U.S. Private Vaults in March 2021, when—in direct violation of a warrant—the agency seized more than $85 million from customers’ safe deposit boxes. One of the boxes at U.S. Private Vaults contained the $40,200 Linda and her husband had saved for a down payment on a family home. IJ challenged those seizures as a violation of the Fourth Amendment in a class action that is ongoing.
Linda’s story took a different turn when, two months after the raid, she received an FBI forfeiture notice. When Linda read the notice, she was mystified. It did not accuse Linda or anyone else of a specific crime the FBI thought justified forfeiting her savings. And the notice left Linda in the dark about how to protect her property. It contained confusing, legalese-heavy instructions about how to respond to the notice—and two assurances that Linda did not need an attorney to help her.
So Linda tried her best. Following the instructions in the notice, she filed a “petition for remission,” which the notice said was the option for seeking the return of property. But the notice didn’t say that by filing a petition Linda automatically conceded the FBI could forfeit her property. Nor did the notice disclose that the only way Linda would get her property back was if the FBI decided to give it back as an act of administrative grace. As this article goes to print, the FBI still has her cash, and Linda still doesn’t know why.
Linda is not alone. The FBI sends substantially identical notices to everyone whose property it wants to forfeit. And these forfeitures are big business for the FBI: Using basically the same confusing and uninformative notice it sent Linda, the FBI administratively forfeited more than $1.19 billion of property from 2017 through 2021.
That is why Linda has joined with IJ to file a class action challenging the FBI’s unconstitutional forfeiture notices. The Constitution requires the government to tell people the specific legal and factual reasons why it is taking their property so that people can defend their rights. And it requires that procedures be clear so that people like Linda aren’t tricked into surrendering their rights. With this latest lawsuit, we intend to put a stop to the FBI’s “take now, explain never” forfeitures once and for all.
Bob Belden is an IJ attorney.
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