LOS ANGELES—US Private Vaults security deposit box owners represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) will appeal a decision issued today blessing the FBI’s search and seizure of the Beverly Hills business. The class action suit had asked Judge R. Gary Klausner to rule that the raid violated the Fourth Amendment rights of box holders and that any records of box contents should be destroyed.
Court filings recently released show that U.S. attorneys did not reveal their plans to use civil forfeiture to take valuables from individual boxes when they applied for the raid’s warrant. Just weeks after the raid, the Department of Justice moved to take hundreds of boxes with a combined value of more than $80 million in cash and tens of millions more in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables. The administrative forfeiture notice did not allege wrongdoing on the part of any individual box owner.
IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson released the following statement:
“If today’s shocking decision stands, it will set a dangerous precedent that will allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to bypass the Fourth Amendment. The decision will give a blueprint for the government to pry open safe deposit boxes, storage lockers, and other private spaces—and to take the contents with civil forfeiture. There is no question that we will be filing an appeal.
“The court’s decision confirms the disturbing facts of this case, which have already been widely reported including by the Los Angeles Times. The court confirms that many ‘USPV customers used its services for legitimate reasons.’ It confirms that the FBI made its plans to forfeit box holders’ property even before applying for its warrant, and it also confirms that the U.S. Attorney’s Office omitted any mention of these plans from the warrant application. The court also finds that there ‘can be no question that the Government expected, or even hoped, to find criminal evidence during its inventory’ of the boxes, notwithstanding the warrant’s specific direction that it did not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the box contents.
“All this makes the district court’s ultimate decision even more troubling. The court does not deny that the government had an improper motive when it applied for its warrant, but it says that fact is irrelevant unless ‘the improper investigatory motive was the only reason that the Government opened the safety deposit boxes.’ And the district court also does not deny that the government concealed its ‘improper investigatory motive’ when it applied for the warrant, but it finds that irrelevant too. In other words, the decision gives law enforcement a license to concoct bogus reasons to seize and forfeit millions of dollars in property from people who have not been accused of doing anything wrong.
“It is not hard to imagine the consequences if this decision stands on appeal. When it first happened, the search in this case was truly unprecedented. The government had never before broken open hundreds of safe deposit boxes without any individualized suspicion, as part of a multimillion-dollar civil forfeiture scheme. But if this decision stands, the extraordinary search in this case will become just the first in a long string of invasions on Americans’ property rights.”