Judge Temporarily Stops the FBI From Seizing the Contents of Private Vaults

A federal judge ordered the FBI to stop the permanent seizure of the contents of a series of private vaults located in a Beverly Hills strip mall that the FBI said were used by drug dealers and criminals.  

“This notice, put bluntly, provides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property whatsoever,”  U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner said in the restraining order.

The safety deposit boxes resided in a storefront run by U.S. Private Vaults (USPV), a company that promised complete anonymity for its customers. To access the vaults, customers used an iris scanner and hand printer. Vault keys were unmarked so not even employees knew which key went to which vault. “We don’t even want to know your name,” an ad for the business said.

In April, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized the contents of those vaults, and in May, the FBI sent out a letter detailing what it found in the boxes and its plans to use civil asset forfeiture to claim the more than $85 million inside. 

According to the feds, U.S. Private Vaults became a haven for drug dealers and criminals. According to Judge Klausner, the FBI went too far in seizing every asset in the vaults and failed to prove some customers were connected to any crimes. 

“The list of purported statutory bases for forfeiture is anything but specific,” the judge’s order said. The FBI painted with a broad brush when seizing the assets in the vaults, claiming the contents fell under a list of 35 separate possible violations. “These include code sections outlawing influencing a loan officer, forgery, counterfeiting, uttering counterfeit obligations, smuggling, loan fraud, computer fraud, and bank fraud among others. The notices therefore fall woefully short of the Government’s duty to provide ‘specific statutory provision allegedly violated.’”

The restraining order noted three specific examples of customers and what they lost when the feds seized the contents of the more than 800 safe deposit boxes. According to the order, it included a married couple “who rented a safe deposit box from USPV in which they placed silver and about $2,000 in cash, as well as various personal documents,” and a man who had placed about “$57,000 in cash—money that [he] relies on to pay his living and medical expenses.”

Civil asset forfeiture is a big problem in law enforcement and a specific goal of many police reform movements. In America, if the cops suspect you of a crime, it’s easy for them to appropriate your property for themselves. This can happen even if the alleged criminal is never convicted or sentenced. Earlier this year, Alabama police seized the car and prosthetic leg of a 23-year old amputee after they caught him with medical marijuana.

“Hundreds of innocent people have had their lives turned upside down by the government’s $85 million cash grab,” Robert Frommer, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Justice said in a press release. “This order squarely rejects the government’s ‘anemic notices’ as an unconstitutional attempt to take box holders’ property for no good reason.”