BEVERLY HILLS, CA – In an FBI raid targeting a privately owned safety deposit box business in the spring of 2021, the agency reportedly misled the magistrate judge who approved the search warrant under the guise that the FBI wouldn’t be using the raid to seize the contents from within safety deposit boxes being rented by customers.
However, the FBI wound up seizing the contents of these safety deposit boxes anyway – and evidence shows that the agency was planning to do so prior to getting the warrant approved.
Back in March of 2021, the FBI executed a search warrant on U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, alleging in the search warrant that the company is possibly engaged in criminal activities such as money laundering of ill-gotten gains following an investigation opened up into the business back in 2019.
However, the scope of the authorized search warrant was quite clear regarding the safety deposit boxes being rented out by customers, in that “a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes” was forbidden in the granted search warrant.
In the government’s affidavit backing up the warrant, it noted that the FBI were wanting to seize “the nests of the boxes themselves, not their contents,” but acknowledged, “By seizing the nests of safety deposit boxes themselves, the government will necessarily end up with custody of what is inside those boxes initially.”
With this acknowledgment in mind, the government swore they intended to follow a procedure with these safety deposit boxes that included an “attempt to notify the lawful owners of the property stored in the boxes how to claim their property” and that all inventory-related activities would “extend no further than necessary to determine ownership.”
But a class action lawsuit filed by the Institute of Justice over the matter found that the FBI did the exact opposite of what they outlined in the granted search warrant, as agents opened every safety deposit box and began civil asset forfeiture proceedings of over $86 million in cash along with gold, jewelry, and other valuables belonging to safety deposit box holders suspected of zero crimes.
“The FBI made a video record of the contents of each box, including opening up sealed envelopes and holding the letters they contained up to the camera. And the FBI initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against millions of dollars of property, without telling box holders what they were accused of doing wrong.”
Court documents related to the ongoing lawsuit revealed that FBI Special Agent Lynne Zellhart had drawn up “supplemental instructions” for agents conducting the raid on U.S. Private Vaults, instructing them to keep an eye out for cash in safety deposit boxes and make a note of “anything which suggests the cash may be criminal proceeds.”
Drug sniffing dogs were also brought along to the search of the safety deposit boxes – an element that is hardly required if the sole intent was to just make an inventory of the items.
Attorneys Robert Frommer and Robert Johnson, who are representing the victims in the lawsuit, likened the government’s actions to suspecting a landlord of criminal activity and using it as a pretense to search every apartment in a building that the landlord owns – something that would be an egregious breach of the Fourth Amendment.
Frommer and Johnson noted in a court filings that the FBI’s framing of a good-faith “inventory” was a false pretense presented to the judge to get the warrant approved, noting that the government could’ve easily pursued other avenues to have property owners claim the contents of their safety deposit boxes.
“The ‘inventory’ was a sham. Indeed, the whole idea of inventorying the vault was unreasonable on its face, as the best way to serve the purposes of an inventory would have been to leave the property safely locked away and appoint a receiver to wind down USPV’s business without an invasion of privacy.”
The attorneys involved in the lawsuit are currently representing nearly 400 individuals who’d rented safety deposit boxes that were seized by the FBI.