Innocent citizens sue FBI over illegal vault raid

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“My eyes went out and fell on the keyboard,” Snitko described evocatively upon discovering that his safe had been seized during an FBI raid. The LA Times story he was reading described the private American vaults of Beverly Hills as a haven for criminals, leaving them to store guns, drugs and laundered money in their boxes.

But how could it be? After their bank told them there was a two-year waiting list for boxes at one of their branches, Paul and his wife Jennifer found private U.S. safes to be a convenient option. with boxes ready for rental. So Paul and Jennifer rented one of these boxes, which they used to store valuables primarily for themselves: his father’s will, a flight log, family watches, and backup hard drives. During their visits, neither Paul nor Jennifer ever got the impression that US Private Vaults was a criminal enterprise, and the couple were certainly not doing anything illegal.

However, Paul and Jennifer soon discovered that the FBI had seized the contents of their box as part of the criminal investigation into the company. The Snitkos weren’t alone either. In total, the FBI seized hundreds of separate boxes rented by hundreds of different people.

What the FBI did not reveal in its statements to the media was that its agents were well beyond the terms of the warrant authorizing the raid on US private safes, which clearly stated that it “”do not allow a criminal search or seizure of the contents of safes. The government also broke its promise to the judge who signed the warrant that when he searched the business, he would only inspect the property if necessary to identify the owner and his efforts would go no further than necessary. to determine ownership. ”

Paul and Jennifer, like many others, made it easier to determine ownership of their box: they placed a sealed letter on top of their box with their contact details and the details of their executor in case they couldn’t. be joined. When the FBI opened this letter, they should have stopped looking, contacted the Snitkos and asked them to come and collect their unopened box. Instead, officers checked in opening the box and placing the contents in bags of evidence.

The FBI has promised box tenants that it will quickly return the property if the owners identify themselves and submit claim forms. When the Snitkos did just that, they heard nothing back. When they finally got hold of an agent and asked what the process was to get their belongings back, the agent replied that she didn’t know. And when they asked when they would get their property back, the agent said there was no deadline.

Paul and Jennifer were rightly upset. The government never charged them with wrongdoing, but the government always retained their property, possibly indefinitely. Getting law enforcement to return something marked as “evidence” is often an almost impossible task. For example, New York City takes and retains tens of thousands of marked phones as evidence each year, often of minors.

In May, the Institute for Justice filed a complaint on behalf of Paul, Jennifer and others for the government’s violations of their constitutional rights. After Paul and Jennifer filed their massive federal class action lawsuit, the FBI quickly changed its tone. He immediately decided to return the property to Paul and Jennifer, an implied admission that he had no reason to keep Snitko’s property in the first place.

However, when it came to boxes containing items of monetary value, the government doubled its efforts by deciding to take the property permanently by civil confiscation, a process in which the balance tipped strongly in the government’s favor. This included money from IJ’s client, Joseph Ruiz, who got a cash settlement when he was seriously injured – money he kept in his safe and relied on for money. medical care and buying food.

A 19-page notice sent to lawyers for US Private Vaults listed nearly 400 boxes containing more than $ 85 million in cash and a fortune in precious metals, jewelry and other valuables. In the weeks after this notice was sent, some mailbox owners began to receive individual letters. Most notably, these notices did not charge anyone with a crime or identify what people had done wrong.

Due process means you have the right to know why the government is trying to take your business. So other victims of confiscation – Travis May, Jeni Pearsons and her husband Michael Storc – joined the Institute for Justice trial and, along with Joseph, asked the court to immediately stop government efforts to take their property without telling them what they think deserves punishment.

U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner agreed. He issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government from permanently taking ownership of Joseph, Travis, Jeni and Michael unless it spells out exactly what the government thinks they did wrong. Judge Klausner forcefully wrote: “This notice, in plain language, provides no factual basis for the seizure of the plaintiffs’ property. ”

Judge Klausner’s order, in so many words, tells the government to “stand up or shut up”. And while the judge’s order only applies to named clients of the Institute for Justice, its logic certainly holds true for anyone who has rented a box from American private safes, as all notices sent by the government do not contain the basic information that people would need to answer.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, and not just their homes. Rented spaces, such as apartments, storage units and safes, are also private spaces. Your private files and papers are too. If the FBI gets away with doing this to vault owners, it will begin to view all of those spaces as potential sources of loot that they can loot. The FBI’s actions strike at the heart of important constitutional rights, and hopefully Judge Klausner’s order is the first in a long line to tell the government to obey the Constitution.


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