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Federal Judge Slaps Down Government in Challenge to U.S. Private Vaults Seizures

Newly granted restraining order stops forfeiture of security deposit box contents for plaintiffs in Institute for Justice lawsuit

LOS ANGELES—Late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner granted a temporary restraining order that stops the government from using civil forfeiture to take the contents of safe deposit boxes seized in the FBI’s raid on Beverly Hills company U.S. Private Vaults. Jeni Pearsons and her husband Michael Storc, along with Joseph Ruiz and Travis May, teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to fight that unconstitutional seizure and the FBI’s attempt to take their cash and valuables forever.

In May, the FBI sent a 19-page forfeiture notice to the attorneys for U.S. Private Vaults, informing the company the FBI was seeking to forfeit the contents of hundreds of safe deposit boxes—including over $85 million in cash and millions more in precious metals, jewelry and other valuables. The FBI sent similar notice letters to many of the individual box holders.

Judge Klausner’s order finds those notices violated due process, explaining: “This notice, put bluntly, provides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property whatsoever.”

“Hundreds of innocent people have had their lives turned upside down by the government’s $85 million cash grab,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “This order squarely rejects the government’s ‘anemic notices’ as an unconstitutional attempt to take box holders’ property for no good reason.”

Civil forfeiture is a legal process that allows the government to permanently take property without charging anyone with a crime. Here, the government has indicted U.S. Private Vaults the company, alleging it violated federal law, but it has not charged (or even alleged) any crime by any of the individual box holders. But the FBI still moved forward to take almost 400 box holders’ property forever.

The order issued Tuesday halts the forfeiture process for the four box holders who are named as plaintiffs in IJ’s lawsuit. It prevents the government from forfeiting Jeni, Michael, Joseph and Travis’ property without first sending them “forfeiture notices that identify the specific factual and legal basis for the Government’s determination to commence civil forfeiture proceedings.”

“While the order formally applies just to our four clients, the reasoning of the order applies to every one of the hundreds of U.S. Private Vaults box holders in this situation,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “If the government presses forward with these forfeitures now, it will be defying the court. We’re calling on the FBI and the U.S. Attorney to do the right thing, to follow the judge’s ruling, and to bring these sham forfeiture proceedings to a close.”

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