LOS ANGELES—Just after publicly announcing that they had teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal class action lawsuit protesting the warrantless seizure of the security deposit box they rented from U.S. Private Vaults, Paul and Jennifer Snitko got a voicemail from the FBI.
In the voicemail, an agent informed them that “you will be receiving your items back.” However, the voicemail went on to say that “the timeline for a secondary phone call to assist you with getting those very items back will take about two to three weeks from now.”
At this time, the FBI has not offered to return the money and possessions of IJ clients Joseph Ruiz or Tyler Gothier, also named plaintiffs in the suit filed yesterday.
“The FBI seized this property over two months ago. And under the seizure warrant, the only thing the FBI was supposed to do with this property was return it to its rightful owners. That should have happened months ago,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “For the FBI to say the Snitkos need to wait three more weeks just to get another phone call would be laughable if this weren’t such a serious matter. The FBI violates the Constitution every day it continues this illegal dragnet seizure.”
“It’s astounding that it took a federal lawsuit and a public press conference for the FBI to recognize that our property should be returned to us,” said Paul Snitko. “That it will take weeks just to get further instructions is mystifying and frustrating. Even when our property is returned, we intend to fight on to ensure that others get their property back and that the government never does this to anyone else.”
The IJ lawsuit alleges that the government’s seizure of hundreds of individual security deposit boxes violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights of the named plaintiffs and all others who rented boxes. The FBI’s warrant for the raid expressly said that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes”–only U.S. Private Vaults’ own business property. And the government promised in applying for the warrant that it just wanted to “notify the lawful owners of the property stored in the boxes how to claim their property.” Yet, months after the seizure, the FBI is slow-walking that return in order to conduct an unauthorized criminal investigation into the box holders.
The government’s games have especially hurt Joseph Ruiz. An accident severely injured Joseph’s back, and he relied on the money that he kept in his security box to buy food and get physical therapy. But the government has now held Joseph’s money for over two months, and it told attorneys for U.S. Private Vaults—the company—that it intends to forfeit the contents of Joseph’s box along with the contents of over four hundred other boxes.
But the government has not told Joseph about its plans, leaving Joseph in the dark and without any way to fight the forfeiture. Cut off from his life savings, Joseph is surviving by eating canned foods that he stockpiled at the beginning of the pandemic.
Joseph spoke yesterday at the press conference saying, “My health has been deteriorating, I’m in a lot of pain standing here. I would like to have my money back.”