Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · December 19, 2023

LOS ANGELES—For years, the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) insisted that they did nothing wrong at US Private Vaults back in March 2021. But now, in a highly unusual legal move, they are inviting the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to quietly send a class action lawsuit back down to a lower court without deciding whether the government’s actions violated the U.S. Constitution.

In March 2021, the FBI raided US Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills safe deposit box company. Even though the warrant authorizing the raid only permitted the FBI to open boxes to identify their owners and safeguard the contents, agents opened hundreds of boxes, ran currency they found in front of drug sniffing dogs, and made copies of peoples’ most personal records. It later came out that, months before applying for the warrant, the government had already decided to try to permanently keep everything worth more than $5,000 from the boxes, all without charging any box renter with a crime.

On December 7, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit heard IJ’s appeal on behalf of customers of US Private Vaults. And their questions showed them to be highly skeptical of the government’s actions. Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., for instance, drew parallels between the FBI’s tactics and the abusive searches conducted by British authorities prior to the Revolutionary War. Judge Carlos Bea expressed incredulity at the idea that drug-sniffing dogs could help reunite owners with their property. And Judge Lawrence VanDyke stated that he viewed the case and the government’s forfeiture plans as “outrageous” and “egregious.”

With the panel seemingly poised to issue a strong ruling against the government, DOJ attorneys are throwing a Hail Mary to avoid accountability. In a filing last week, the government claimed to understand the panel’s “serious Fourth Amendment concerns about the inventory search conducted at Private Vaults.” Yet, rather than take its medicine, the government has suggested that the court should instead send the case back down so the district court can silently grant plaintiffs their requested relief and close out the case. IJ is opposing the motion.

The government has a powerful incentive to avoid an appeals court ruling, which could put the brakes on future raids on safe deposit box companies, storage units, or apartment buildings. And even while the government claims to understand and appreciate the panel’s concerns, its actions belie its words. Despite the panel’s condemnation, the government continues to press forward with civil forfeiture actions against box renters while simultaneously saying it doesn’t owe anything to box renters whose valuables went missing in the days after the raid.

“The government’s actions are shameless, and we hope the court will see through this attempt to sweep a massive constitutional violation under the rug,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) Senior Attorney Rob Johnson.

The Institute for Justice is a national nonprofit law firm dedicated to upholding individual rights. IJ is joined in this case by local counsel Nilay Vora and Jeff Atteberry of The Vora Law Firm, P.C.