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National Public Interest Law Firm Weighs In On Safety Deposit Seizure Case

Institute for Justice calls dragnet search of boxes seized without a warrant an abuse of the Fourth Amendment unlike any other

LOS ANGELES—In March, federal agents seized the contents of hundreds of security deposit boxes at a Beverly Hills facility absent any evidence that the people who rented those boxes did anything wrong. Yesterday evening, the Institute for Justice (IJ) weighed into that dispute with a friend-of-the-court brief urging U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner to return the seized property.

As has been widely reported, the government seized the boxes at U.S. Private Vaults as part of its investigation into alleged offenses by the company’s owners. The government did not allege any wrongdoing by company’s customers, and in fact the government has conceded in court filings that “some of the customers of USPV are honest citizens to whom the government wishes to return their property.” Nonetheless, the government cracked open every box in the vault and ran any cash they came across by drug-sniffing dogs.

“The government’s deliberate dragnet search of innocent peoples’ private security boxes is the most shocking Fourth Amendment abuse that the Institute for Justice has ever seen,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “The government didn’t get a warrant to search these boxes, but it claims that it had to break them open to ‘protect’ renters from theft or loss. But the easiest and best way to do that would have been to leave the boxes locked and secure until renters could come retrieve their property.”

The government’s actions also threaten to turn the presumption of innocence on its head. Usually, the government has to prove you did something wrong before it takes your property. But the government is now asserting that, to get their property back, the hundreds of people who rented security boxes from U.S. Private Vaults must come forward, identify themselves to the FBI, and prove to the government’s satisfaction that they came by their property legally.

“This case is about the right to privacy from the government and property rights,” added IJ Senior Attorney Robert Johnson. “The government is making box holders prove they aren’t criminals simply because they kept their property in a private facility. But privacy is not suspicious, and it isn’t criminal. It’s a fundamental constitutional right.”

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