The FBI wants to keep $86 million in cash and millions more in jewelry and other valuables seized in a raid on a Beverly Hills, California, safe deposit box business, even though a judge specifically said the contents of the boxes wasn’t up for grabs.
Prosecutors claim it’s fair to make the renters of the 369 safe deposit boxes forfeit their valuables, because they were engaged in criminal activity, The Los Angeles Times reported. But there’s no evidence to support the allegation.
The box holders and their lawyers say the FBI is trampling on the rights of people who were unaware the business, U.S. Private Vaults, was charged in a sealed indictment with conspiring to sell drugs and launder money.
The warrant US Magistrate Steve Kim signed on March 17 gave permission for the FBI to raid the business even said, “This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.”
If the FBI wanted to search the boxes, it needed to meet the standard for a warrant of probable cause that evidence of a crime would be found. But agents rifled through about 800 boxes anyway, filming their searches and bagging the property as evidence even when the holders were unknown and not suspected of crimes.
Now, the government is trying to keep the cash, gold and silver bars, pricey watches and even $1.3 million in poker chips from a Vegas casino.
The government “can’t take stuff without evidence in the hopes that you’re going to get it later,” said Benjamin Gluck, an attorney who represents box holders suing the government to retrieve their property, told the Times. “The Fourth Amendment and the forfeiture laws require the opposite — that you have the evidence first, and then you can take property.”
“We have some basis to believe that the items are related to criminal activity,” Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the FBI’s L.A. office, told the Times.
The contents of about 75 of the 800 boxes initially seized have already been returned, and at least 175 more will be given back, Mrozek said. The feds haven’t figured out who owns what was stored in many of the others.
The indictment says U.S. Private Vaults marketed itself to attract criminals who wanted to store valuables anonymously and hide from tax authorities. One of the company’s owners and a manager were involved in selling drugs and co-conspirators helped customers convert cash into gold to evade government suspicion, the Times reported.
But box owners like Joseph Ruiz, who kept $57,000 in cash from two legal settlements there because he doesn’t trust banks, say the government is stealing their money.
“I’m made out to be a criminal, and I didn’t do anything,” said Ruiz, the son of a retired Los Angeles police officer, told the paper. “I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
Ruiz has joined one of 11 lawsuits filed by box owners seeking the return of their property.