Judge Blocks FBI From Moving Forward With Forfeitures Of Property Seized In US Private Vaults Raid
from the get-your-shit-together,-g-men dept
Earlier this year, the FBI raided a privately owned safety deposit box business in Los Angeles. The business provided secure storage for customers’ valuables, which were only accessible via biometric scans. The DOJ accused the company of engaging in drug trafficking and money laundering, but has yet to bring charges against any of the company’s employees or its customers.
The FBI obtained a search warrant that limited agents to seizing items belonging to the company but, very expressly, not items belonging to customers. This restriction — and the FBI’s own inventory policy — was ignored. Over the course of five days, FBI agents searched and seized the contents of nearly 1,000 boxes.
The warrant said the FBI would understandably take temporary possession of the boxes. But it forbade them from searching them for criminal evidence. The FBI’s policy limited its inventory of the boxes’ contents to doing only what was necessary to find information about the property’s owner so they could be notified and allowed to retrieve their contents.
This didn’t happen. The FBI walked away with millions of dollars and — months after the seizures — has yet to accuse any customer of criminal activity. Several customers sued. And a federal judge has just blocked the FBI from taking possession (via civil asset forfeiture) of some of the property seized in the raid.
In a 7-page ruling Tuesday, [Judge R. Gary] Klausner sided with plaintiffs and granted the temporary restraining order preventing the government from forfeiting Jeni, Michael, Joseph and Travis’ property.
To satisfy due process, the government must provide property owners notice of the statutes buttressing forfeiture proceedings, the ruling said, adding that the notices sent to plaintiffs failed to do so.
“The notices therefore fall woefully short of the government’s duty to provide ‘the specific statutory provision allegedly violated,’” Klausner wrote in the order.
As the judge’s order [PDF] points out, the law requires specificity when notifying citizens of the government’s desire to forcibly transfer ownership. The notices sent by the FBI weren’t specific.
Rather than list the specific statutory provisions the Government maintains justify forfeiture of the specific property seized from each USPV box, the Government notices state:
Forfeiture Authority: The forfeiture of this property has been initiated pursuant to 18 USC 981(a)(1)(C) [sic.] and the following additional federal laws: 19 USC 1602-1619, 18 USC 983 and 28 CFR Parts 8 and 9.
The list of purported statutory bases for forfeiture is anything but specific. Title 18 USC 981(a)(1)(C) lists thirty-five sections of the United States Code. A violation of any one of those code provisions can provide a basis for forfeiture… These include code sections outlawing influencing a loan officer, forgery, counterfeiting, uttering counterfeit obligations, smuggling, loan fraud, computer fraud, and bank fraud, among others.
No specificity, no seizure. The FBI is blocked from moving forward with forfeiture belonging to the four plaintiffs until it can provide them with the proper notice — one that specifies what criminal activity the government believes the seized property is linked to or the result of.
Given the total of the take from US Private Vaults raid, I would expect the government to give up this property rather than head into some litigation that may result in similar lawsuits or court orders affecting the dispensation of other seizures/searches that haven’t been challenged yet. This could have been avoided if the government had followed its own warrant restrictions, its own internal policies, and the contours of the rights enshrined in the Constitution.