Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · July 10, 2023

LOS ANGELES—Linda Martin was never charged with a crime, but the FBI seized her $40,200 and held it for two years. But the month after Linda filed a nationwide class action lawsuit with the Institute for Justice (IJ), the FBI hurriedly tried to return her nest egg to avoid any accountability. Although Linda now has her money back, her fight to end the FBI’s practice of sending unconstitutional forfeiture notices will continue in federal court in Washington, D.C.

“I’m relieved to finally have my savings back, but it has been a confusing and frustrating process from the moment it was taken,” said Linda. “I had to prove my innocence to keep my own money. No one should be treated that way and I’m going to keep fighting so that others don’t suffer the same way I did.”

Linda thought she had found a safe place to store cash she and her husband Reggie Wilder were setting aside to purchase a home. But her safe deposit box at US Private Vaults in Beverly Hills was seized in a March 2021 FBI raid. The warrant explicitly directed agents not to conduct a criminal search or seizure of individual customers’ boxes. They were just supposed to identify owners so they could claim their property. But the FBI instead acted on its months-old plan to search and try to forfeit the contents of any box worth more than $5,000.

When Linda got the notice in June 2021 saying the FBI intended to take her $40,200, she was left utterly bewildered. Lacking any idea about why the government took her money, Linda unwittingly filed a petition that gave the FBI free rein to decide whether to return any of her money. As late as January 2023, the FBI wouldn’t tell Linda anything except that her matter was pending. In March, Linda filed a class action lawsuit, and the FBI suddenly was more than ready to return her money.

“The FBI had no idea who Linda was, yet it tried to forfeit her life savings simply because her safe-deposit box contained more than $5,000,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. “By never forcing the Bureau to say what it thinks someone did wrong, the FBI’s notices enable the sort of corrupt ‘policing for profit’ that caused Linda’s forfeiture nightmare to drag on for over two years.”

The FBI’s forfeiture notices violate the Fifth Amendment, which requires the government to provide specific factual and legal reasons for forfeiture. An earlier IJ lawsuit on behalf of several US Private Vaults customers successfully stopped the FBI’s forfeiture proceedings against those renters, with the judge declaring that the FBI’s notices were “anemic.” Unfortunately, that ruling against the government only applied to the named plaintiffs in that suit, leaving people like Linda still fighting for their property.

Linda’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to halt administrative forfeiture proceedings for everyone who has received one of the FBI’s deficient notices.

“We’re thrilled that Linda can finally get her life back on track,” said IJ Attorney Bob Belden. “But we still have to fight for the many others whose lives have been derailed by the FBI’s forfeiture machine.”