FBI loses case after stealing contents of private vaults [safe-deposit boxes]

As I wait for Dept of State to give me travel papers as a state national, I read with glee about winning cases against unruly and ultra vires actions by federal agencies.

The FBI violated people’s constitutional rights when it opened and “inventoried” the contents of hundreds of safe-deposit boxes during a raid on a Beverly Hills vault in 2021, a federal appellate court ruled Tuesday. (source)

FBI obtained a limited warrant against a private vault company on Los Angeles, only to then confiscate all private boxes of all customers.

The privacy invasion was vast when FBI agents drilled and pried their way into 1,400 safe-deposit boxes at the U.S. Private Vaults store in Beverly Hills. (source)

And they misled the judge who granted the warrant:

Eighteen months later, newly unsealed court documents show that the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles got their warrant for that raid by misleading the judge who approved it.

They omitted from their warrant request a central part of the FBI’s plan: Permanent confiscation of everything inside every box containing at least $5,000 in cash or goods, a senior FBI agent recently testified.

The FBI’s justification for the dragnet forfeiture was its presumption that hundreds of unknown box holders were all storing assets somehow tied to unknown crimes, court records show.

It took five days for scores of agents to fill their evidence bags with the bounty: More than $86 million in cash and a bonanza of gold, silver, rare coins, gem-studded jewelry and enough Rolex and Cartier watches to stock a boutique. (source)

Here’s a good analogy:

Box holders would liken the raid to police barging into a building’s 700 apartments and taking every tenant’s possessions when they have evidence of wrongdoing by nobody but the landlord. (source)

Notably, the leftist LA Times didn’t mention that the case was brought by the libertarian non-profit law firm, Institute for Justice. LA Times only mentions the plaintiffs:

Among those celebrating were lead plaintiffs Paul and Jennifer Snitko, an aeronautics engineer and entertainment attorney who said they had placed family heirlooms, important legal documents such as wills and other sentimental items in a box at the U.S. Private Vaults store on Olympic Boulevard after fires had repeatedly forced them to evacuate their Pacific Palisades home with little warning.

“This is a good day,” Jennifer Snitko, 48, said in an interview with The Times. “Not just for us, but for all Americans — to say you have a right to privacy, your 4th Amendment right does exist. It’s a constitutional right for you to be able to keep your things privately and not have them raided without a proper warrant.” (source)

Institute for Justice celebrated the win:

PASADENA, Calif.—This morning, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously ruled against the government in a long-running class action lawsuit from the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of people who rented security deposit boxes at US Private Vaults. The decision slammed the FBI for overstepping its authority when it opened up hundreds of renters’ boxes, conducted criminal searches of them all, and attempted to permanently keep everything in the boxes worth more than $5,000, all without charging any box renter with a crime. (source)

The law firm also quoted the decision that likens FBI to the King’s men:

Judge Milan D. Smith, writing for the court, likened the FBI’s actions to the abuses that motivated the Bill of Rights: “[T]he government failed to explain why applying the inventory exception to this case would not open the door to the kinds of ‘writs of assistance’ the British authorities used prior to the Founding to conduct limitless searches of an individual’s personal belongings. It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.” (source)

About that warrant:

In other words, the only thing the government was supposed to do was seize the nest of boxes. While the government would temporarily hold the contents of those boxes, it was supposed to return those contents to their owners. The warrant specifically stated that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.” (source)

The amount of money taken is staggering (source):

Part of forfeiture document listing money taken during LA vault raid

Gold was described as yellow coins and yellow-colored bars and valued at $1.00. (source, page 13)

List of gold items seized by FBI with everything described as yellow items

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