9th Circuit: FBI Illegally Raided Hundreds of Safe Deposit Boxes

January 31st, 2024 Comments

'We knew that what the FBI did to us and so many others was wrong and today's decision is a validation...'

(Ken Silva, Headline USA) The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the FBI acted unlawfully in March 2021, when it raided hundreds of renters' safe deposit boxes in Beverly Hills, 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.

The 9th Circuit's Tuesday decision stems from an investigation the FBI opened into US Private Vaults, or USPV—a company that, unlike typical banks, provided safe deposit boxes to customers without requiring identification. The FBI had been investigating individual USPV customers, but determined the “real problem” was USPV, which they believed served as a “money laundering facilitator.”

Accordingly, the FBI raided the entire USPV vault in 2021.

Even though the warrant authorizing the raid only permitted the FBI to open boxes to identify their owners and safeguard the contents, agents rummaged through hundreds of boxes, ran currency they found in front of drug-sniffing dogs, and made copies of people's most personal records, according to the Institute for Justice, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple non-criminal USPV customers.

The Justice Department then filed a massive administrative forfeiture claim to take more than $100 million in cash and other valuables, again, without charging any individual with a crime, the IJ added.

Among the FBI's victims were Paul and Jennifer Snitko, who used their USPV box to store legal documents, watches with sentimental value, hard-drive backups, coins, and gold jewelry. The Snitkos used USPV because there was a waiting list to obtain a safe deposit box at their local bank.

Another FBI victim was Joseph Ruiz, who stored $57,000 in cash in his box and used USPV because he was concerned that “the COVID pandemic would make it impossible for [him] to withdraw [his] funds from a bank account.”

Initially refusing to give the victims their property back, the FBI changed course and returned the stolen valuables after the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in June 2021.

A district court initially ruled that the FBI didn't violate the Fourth Amendment with the conduct described above, but the 9th Circuit reversed that ruling on Tuesday.

Judge Milan D. Smith, writing for the court, likened the FBI's actions to the abuses that motivated the Bill of Rights.

“The 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,” he said.

“It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.”

Jennifer Snitko said she felt validated by the court's decision.

“We knew that what the FBI did to us and so many others was wrong and today's decision is a validation,” she said in a press release from IJ.

“It took courage for Paul and I to be among the first people to stand up publicly and call out the government but we are proud to have fought for our rights. This is a good day for our country and the principle that the government's power to search our property has limits.”