LOS ANGELES—Using civil forfeiture, the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking to permanently take the contents of hundreds of safe deposit boxes, including over $85 million in cash and precious metals, jewelry and other valuables worth millions more. But the boxes’ owners have not been accused of any crime and have not been told what the government thinks they did wrong. Now, several of those owners are joining an existing Institute for Justice (IJ) class action lawsuit to stop the government’s forfeiture plans in their tracks.
“This is an $85 million cash grab by the federal government,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “The government has no basis to think any of these people have done anything wrong. It just wants to keep their stuff. That’s unlawful and unconstitutional.”
Jeni Pearsons is the Director of Operations for a distinguished nonprofit in Los Angeles. Jeni and her husband Michael Storc rented a box to store silver they bought as a nest egg for retirement. Now, the government is trying to use civil forfeiture to permanently take Jeni and Michael’s silver despite not telling either of them what specifically they did to deserve such punishment.
“We’ve seen the value of silver increase over the years, so we thought we could purchase silver as an investment for retirement,” said Jeni. “After the FBI raid, we just assumed we would get our property back, and when we contacted the FBI they told us we just had to wait. But now we’re told the government wants to take our property forever. And why? It’s surreal.”
Jeni and Michael’s surreal experience is, unfortunately, now all too common. Civil forfeiture is a legal process that allows the government to permanently take property without charging anyone with a crime. Here, the government has alleged that the company U.S. Private Vaults was violating federal law, but has not charged any individual box holder with any offense. The government has mailed out forfeiture notices to box holders—informing them of the attempted forfeiture of their property—but those notices do not provide any explanation for the government’s decision to begin forfeiture.
“Civil forfeiture takes the presumption of innocence and turns it on its head, forcing people to prove their own innocence to keep their property,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “And in this case property owners don’t even know what crime they supposedly committed. They have to prove their innocence—but innocence of what? All they’re accused of is keeping valuables in a box.”
Travis May is the CEO of TollFreeForwarding.com and a trustee at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank which publishes reason.com. Because he lives alone, travels frequently, and cash is not allowed in his Chase bank deposit box, he used his box at U.S. Private Vaults to store $100,000 in gold and $63,000 in cash outside his home.
“This is wrong and it’s unconstitutional. The agents involved lied to a judge and violated their oath to uphold the constitution, while lining their own agencies’ pockets. The government is treating everyone who rented a box like they are a criminal as an excuse to take a fortune in cash and precious metals,” said Travis “Civil forfeiture is an abomination; this is a clear demonstration of the perverse motive it creates. Congress should investigate this travesty of justice committed by these once-respected agencies, and finally end civil forfeiture.”
Some individual box holders who did not have cash or precious metals in their boxes have been able to recover their property in recent weeks. Yet the process to get this property back is traumatic and time-consuming. Paul and Jennifer Snitko used their box to store possessions valuable mainly to them: Paul’s father’s will, backup hard drives, old family watches and Paul’s flight log. Late last week, the Snitkos’ property was returned to them at the FBI’s Los Angeles headquarters. While their property is now returned, the Snitkos remain plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit.
“It’s absurd that it took months and a class action lawsuit to get back our property,” said Paul Snitko. “Seeing that our personal belongings and private documents had been rifled through and put into evidence bags as part of a federal criminal investigation was emotionally difficult. The FBI did not have permission or need to open our box, and holding onto our property for so long was a grotesque violation of our constitutional rights.”