Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · March 7, 2023

WASHINGTON—Linda Martin thought she found a safe place to store cash she and her husband Reggie Wilder were setting aside to purchase a home. But now her home savings are in the hands of the FBI and she may never see them again. Today, she teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to launch a federal class action lawsuit to get her savings back and to end the FBI’s practice of sending unconstitutional forfeiture notices that do not explain why the government is trying to take someone’s property away forever.

“The government shouldn’t get to take your property if it can’t tell you what you did wrong,” said IJ Attorney Bob Belden. “Using civil forfeiture, the government decides for itself whether to take and try to keep property, even when it doesn’t suspect the owners of any crime. Then, the FBI sends copy-and-paste forfeiture notices that fail to tell owners anything about why it is trying to take their property. That’s not only wrong; it’s unconstitutional.”

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In March 2021, the FBI raided US Private Vaults with a warrant that 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.

That’s all the agency really knew about the customers: that they had property worth forfeiting. It didn’t have any idea if owners had broken any law. But with dollar signs in its eyes, the FBI pressed on, sending out notices to hundreds of customers from whom it wanted to forfeit over $100 million cash, gold, and other valuables. Although those notices indirectly refer to hundreds of federal crimes, they don’t tell anyone what the government thinks they specifically did wrong.

That’s what happened to Linda. When she got the notice 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 if it will return any of her money. Nearly two years later, Linda has not been charged with a crime and there is no indication that her savings will be returned.

“The FBI took my savings nearly two years ago but has never told me why,” said Linda. “It’s been a confusing and frustrating process from the day my money was taken. No one should have to go through this.”

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.

The new 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.

“Thousands of times every year, people receive paltry notices that merely say the government wants to forfeit their property because it might be wrapped up in one of hundreds of federal crimes,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. “Linda’s plight highlights the ugly truth that federal forfeiture incentivizes agents to seize as much as they can, even absent any reason to think that a crime was committed. The FBI’s ‘policing for profit’ deliberately leaves property owners in the dark in order to keep them from fighting back.”

Forfeiture, both civil and criminal, is a huge money maker for federal law enforcement. In just the five years from 2017 through 2021, Department of Justice agencies forfeited more than $8 billion. The FBI forfeited over $1.19 billion during that same time period. And that money goes into an account that DOJ controls itself, without input from Congress. If the government confuses people into filing a petition in response to its anemic notice, those owners fall into a byzantine administrative process with no independent judge, no hearing and no opportunity for judicial review. The FBI forfeited over $113 million through the administrative process over those five years.