When FBI agents asked permission to rip hundreds of safe deposit boxes off the walls of a Beverly Hills business and take them away, U.S. Magistrate Steve Kim set some strict limits on the raid.
The business, at US Private Vault, was charged in a sealed indictment with conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money. It did not have customers.
So the FBI could confiscate the boxes themselves, Kim decided, but the owners had to return whatever they had.
“This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or confiscation of the contents of the safety deposit box,” declares Kim’s March 17 seizure warrant.
Lawyers say that if the FBI wanted to search the boxes, it first needed to meet the standard of a court-issued warrant: probable cause that evidence of specific crimes would be found.
The government “can’t take stuff without evidence hoping you’re going to get it later,” said Benjamin Gluck, an attorney representing box holders suing the government to retrieve their assets. is. “The opposite of the Fourth Amendment and forfeiture laws requires that you have evidence first, and then you can take property.”
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The confiscation law enables the government to confiscate properties linked to criminal activities. The generally low standard of evidence makes it an attractive tool for prosecutors who must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal trials.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Emailer referred questions to the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the office, denied the government was abusing its powers by trying to confiscate the box holders’ belongings.
“We have some basis to believe that the items are related to criminal activity,” he said.
In general, Mrozek said, several factors would prompt the FBI to confiscate the contents of the boxes — such as large piles of cash held by a person with a criminal record or no known source of income.
In addition to $86 million in cash, the FBI is seeking to seize thousands of gold and silver bars, Patek Philippe and Rolex watch, and gemstone earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, many of them in felt or velvet pouches. The FBI also wants to take the box holder’s $1.3 million in poker chips from Aria Casino in Las Vegas.
The contents of nearly 800 safe deposit boxes confiscated by the FBI in late March include money and items confiscated during a five-day raid of a US Private Vault store in the Olympic Boulevard strip mall known for its kosher vegetarian Thai restaurant. were done.
Mrozek said the FBI has returned the contents of about 75 boxes and plans to return the items found in at least 175 more, as there was no evidence of criminality. Federal agents have not determined who owns the contents stored in several other boxes.
The indictment says US Private Vault marketed itself to attract criminals who wanted to store valuables anonymously and keep tax officials at bay. It says an owner and manager of a US private vault was involved in the sale of the drug, and that co-conspirators helped customers convert cash into gold to evade government suspicion.
Among those caught in the government’s trap was Joseph Ruiz, who lost his life savings in the raid: $57,000 in cash. Ruiz, 47, an unemployed food service worker who lives near Crenshaw Boulevard and the 10 Freeway, doesn’t trust banks and sees world affairs deeply untenable, so he puts his money in a US private vault.
Ruiz said he received the money in two legal settlements, one for a spinal cord injury in a car accident and another for old housing code violations in his apartment building.
The FBI confiscated it, rejected their requests to return it, and is now proceeding to confiscate it without explanation.
They just stole my money,” said Ruiz, whose most recent job was at Gate Gourmet, an airline caterer.
When he is stopped by a US private vault during an FBI raid to claim his money, Ruiz said, a federal agent asked if he was related to a drug cartel.
“I’ve been convicted, and I didn’t do anything,” said Ruiz, the son of a retired Los Angeles police officer. “I am a law-abiding citizen.”
Ruiz, Jennifer, and Paul Snitko are joined by the Pacific Palisades couple, who in Los Angeles, acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison and Christy Koons had kept jewelry and baptism certificates in their US private vault box in filing a class-action complaint against Johnson. , who heads the FBI’s LA field office.
It is one of 11 lawsuits filed by box holders seeking court orders declaring the return and confiscation of their assets unconstitutional.
Robert Frommer, a lawyer, said, “They throw people like Joseph into this upside-down world, where they have done nothing wrong, but they try to get their wealth back and prosecute the government to prove their own innocence.” forced to come forward.” For Ruiz and Snickers.
Frommer is a senior attorney at the Liberal Institute for Justice in Virginia, where he specializes in challenging government forfeitures. A forfeiture is a controversial tool used nationwide in recent decades by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. supporters say prevents crime With the threat that cash, cars, and other property acquired illegally, or used for illegal purposes may be confiscated.
However, critics say that it is often abused By the police and prosecutors who can confiscate people’s property even if they do not have evidence to prove their guilt in a criminal trial. Several jurisdictions have faced allegations of excessive use to fund law enforcement operations.
From 2000 to 2019, forfeitures generated $46 billion for the federal government, the Justice Institute report found.F
In the US Private Vaults case, the FBI’s May 20 notice of seizure against 369 safe deposit boxes was already a crude display of power by the FBI and the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
“It certainly doesn’t smell good,” said former federal prosecutor David B. Smith, author of “Prosecution and Defense of Seizure Cases.” “They can’t say, ‘You show me this is legitimate money – it’s not the law, and no judge would let them do that.”
Box holders who fail to claim their property over the next few weeks will automatically lose it. Those challenging the forfeiture have two options.
One way is to acknowledge that the FBI has a right to take their money or valuables and request a refund of at least a portion. The second is to oppose the confiscation by June 24, which would require the government to show evidence in court linking the property to a crime. The risk of high legal fees often deters people from filing claims.
Isaacs, an attorney for the box holders, said prosecutors were trying to “extort people to uncover their identities to investigate.” “It’s unprecedented, and I think it’s very dangerous,” he said.
In their lawsuits, box holders claim that the FBI is forcing them to waive their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures or their Fifth Amendment pleas to plead not themselves.
His lawyers say the government’s intention was always to search every box for evidence against the clients – in defiance of a magistrate’s warrant.
From the outset, the raid on a US private vault presented challenges for the FBI.
The case that the agents framed against the business offered sufficient grounds for the court to authorize the seizure of the company’s computers, security cameras, and other business equipment—including the hundreds of safe deposit boxes on its walls.
In seeking a warrant for the raid, prosecutors and FBI agents admitted they had no legal power…