FBI Lied To Court En Route To Seizing Property Owned By Private Vault Company Customers
from the nice-job,-perverts dept
There is no doubt civil asset forfeiture perverts law enforcement’s incentives. When a government agency can directly profit from seizing people’s property, it will do this as often as it can. And when the justice system is skewed against people seeking to have their property returned, it greases the wheels for abuse.
In forfeiture cases, the government is allowed to treat seized property as presumptively guilty, placing the burden of proof on people whose property has been seized to prove they acquired it legally. Inverting the burden of proof makes it less likely seizures will be challenged since citizens aren’t guaranteed free representation in what is ostensibly a civil case. That means if people can’t afford to hire a lawyer (or realize legal fees will exceed the value of the seized property), the government gets to keep everything it stole.
The FBI used this leverage to seize everything agents found in private storage boxes owned by customers of US Private Vaults. The company offered no-questions-asked secure safety deposit box-esque storage to customers at storefront operations located in strip malls and other areas US Private Vaults operated. Customers could access the contents of their secure storage boxes. US Private Vaults could not. The government thought this was inherently suspicious.
So, it concocted a plan to raid US Private Vaults’ locations. This plan included lying to the court about what FBI agents planned to do when performing these searches. Federal agents swore they would not seize the contents of individual boxes, but rather seize the entire “nest” of boxes stored at a US Private Vaults location and only examine contents of individual boxes for the purposes of identifying owners who could be contacted about the raid and seizure. This is from the FBI’s warrant application:
This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the safety deposit boxes. In seizing the nests of safety deposit boxes, agents shall follow their written inventory policies to protect their agencies and the contents of the boxes. Also in accordance with their written policies, agents shall inspect the contents of the boxes in an effort to identify their owners in order to notify them so that they can claim their property.
Despite these sworn statements, the FBI performed criminal searches and seizures of the contents of individual boxes. This lie — along with the FBI’s inability to link seized property to criminal activity — led to some early judicial pushback.
Less than a month after the raid, a federal court blocked the FBI from moving forward with a number of its planned forfeitures due to a lack of evidence connecting seized property to criminal activity. As the judge pointed out then, the government’s only “evidence” was a copy-pasted quotation of supposedly relevant criminal codes — something entirely unsuited to justifying the seizure of certain customers’ property.
The following month, the same court ordered the FBI to return $57,000 to a vault customer because it was still unable to link this seizure to suspected criminal activity.
Despite these early failures, the FBI is still trying to keep a majority of the property it told the court more than a year ago it wasn’t actually going to seize. The Institute for Justice has been involved in this case since its beginning. And now it’s demanding the court take notice of the FBI’s willingness to continue lying to maintain its grip on its ill-gotten gains. Joseph Cox, reporting for Motherboard, has the details. (h/t Michael Vario)
“The government has a duty to be honest with the court when it applies for a warrant under the Fourth Amendment,” senior attorney at the Institute for Justice Robert Frommer said in a statement. “But the FBI lied about its intentions in claiming to only be interested in the property of the business, and not the box holders. Ultimately, the lure of civil forfeiture turned these federal cops into robbers.”
Before sending their warrant application to a judge, authorities “failed to tell the judge that, months before, they and other government agencies had already formulated plans to use civil forfeiture against customers’ property. In fact, before the federal magistrate had even seen the warrant application, FBI officials had concluded they would use civil forfeiture against every asset in every customer’s box that was worth over $5,000,” the Institute for Justice writes.
Long before the government lied on its warrant application — the one that said the FBI would not perform seizures/searches of individual boxes for criminal charge reasons — the FBI was already planning to do the things it would later tell a judge it wouldn’t do.
The plan began all the way back in June 2020, nine months before the FBI (under false pretenses) secured a search warrant to perform the raid at US Private Vaults. That plan, according to a court filing obtained by the Institute for Justice, showed the FBI had already placed its forfeiture unit in motion to handle the planned influx of seizures that this raid would produce.
Lie after lie and yet, somehow, it’s still customers of a private vault company forced to spend their own money to secure the return of… their own money. Civil asset forfeiture is a perversion of law. And, as these latest revelations show, the government is filled with exactly the sort of perverts civil asset forfeiture attracts.