Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · January 23, 2024

PASADENA, Calif.—This morning, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously ruled against the government in a long-running class action lawsuit from the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of people who rented security deposit boxes at US Private Vaults. The decision slammed the FBI for overstepping its authority when it opened up hundreds of renters’ boxes, conducted criminal searches of them all, and attempted to permanently keep everything in the boxes worth more than $5,000, all without charging any box renter with a crime.

“Today’s opinion draws a line in the sand, to ensure something like this never happens again,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “If this had come out the other way, the government could have exported this raid as a model across the country. Now, the government is on notice its actions violated the Fourth Amendment.”

Judge Milan D. Smith, writing for the court, likened the FBI’s actions to the abuses that motivated the Bill of Rights: “[T]he government failed to explain why applying the inventory exception to this case would not open the door to the kinds of ‘writs of assistance’ the British authorities used prior to the Founding to conduct limitless searches of an individual’s personal belongings. It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.”

“We knew that what the FBI did to us and so many others was wrong and today’s decision is a validation,” said Jennifer Snitko. “It took courage for Paul and I to be among the first people to stand up publicly and call out the government but we are proud to have fought for our rights. This is a good day for our country and the principle that the government’s power to search our property has limits.”

For years, the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) insisted that they did nothing wrong at US Private Vaults. Even though the warrant authorizing the raid only permitted the FBI to open boxes to identify their owners and safeguard the contents, agents rummaged through hundreds of boxes, ran currency they found in front of drug sniffing dogs, and made copies of people’s most personal records. The DOJ then filed a massive administrative forfeiture claim to take more than $100 million in cash and other valuables, again, without charging any individual with a crime.

“The government promised the magistrate that it would not conduct a criminal search or seizure of the boxes,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “After years of litigation, today’s opinion shows that not to be true. The government lied to justify its forfeiture scheme, and in the end the lie was its undoing.”  

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.