U.S. special agents steal millions of dollars from U.S. citizens with impunity during searches

Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are concerned about cases of blatant disregard for the constitutional rights of American citizens by agents of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the Foundation, Federal agents stole $86 million in cash and millions more in jewelry from innocent citizens during one of their raids in March 2021 at the Beverly Hills office of U.S. Private Vaults, a company suspected of criminal activity.

In March 2021, a squad of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents searched the Beverly Hills offices of U.S. Private Vaults, a company suspected of conspiring to sell drugs and launder money. The indictment alleged that the vault company and its customers engaged in money laundering and allowed drug dealers to store drugs, guns and cash in them. Over several days, masked agents photographed evidence, seized jewelry, gold bars and coins, and confiscated contraband from 1,400 safes rented by a range of people, including a retired doctor, a saxophonist, a retired aerospace engineer and at least two lawyers.

In total, the FBI seized $86 million in cash, as well as Rolex and Cartier watches, rare coins, silver and gold jewelry, valuable papers and more. Despite the fact that the warrant issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim stated that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safes,” the FBI initiated civil forfeiture proceedings for millions of dollars worth of property without explaining to the owners of the boxes what they were accused of. Thus many Price Vaults customers lost their property, despite having no criminal ties and having broken no laws. Under U.S. forfeiture laws, law enforcement can only seize items if they are related to criminal activity.

“And while the warrant authorized the government to seize USPV property, the warrant did not authorize the government to conduct a criminal search or seize the property of USPV customers. But the government did just that, and two months later, the government is still withholding many of these customers’ property, even though the warrant expressly provided that the customers’ property would be returned. The government’s behavior is shocking, unconscionable and unconstitutional,” said Ruiz, a 47-year-old man who kept $57,000 in his safe deposit box, some of which was received as an insurance payout after a car accident that left Ruiz with a spinal cord injury and jobless.

According to the Institute for Justice , the organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the safe deposit box customers, the FBI’s “government games” harmed “safe deposit box tenants.” After winning in court and the FBI agreeing to return their property, some plaintiffs, such as Don Melleine and Janie Pearsons, found that some of their property was missing. Mellein was given money from his drawer, but was not given any of his 110 gold coins. The FBI had no record of the missing coins because they were not listed on the property receipt for the contents of his drawer. When the plaintiffs demanded a copy of the videotape of the search, the FBI said that because of the large amount of property, it abandoned its original plan to videotape the process of seizing the contents of each box.

“The government cannot seize the property of citizens without evidence of their connection to criminal activity. The 4th Amendment and forfeiture laws require the opposite – that there must be proof first before the property can be seized,” said Benjamin Gluck, an attorney representing cell owners who sued the government to get their property back.

In January 2024, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Bureau of Investigation exceeded its authority and violated the constitutional rights of safe deposit box owners whose property was seized without probable cause, which was expressly prohibited by the warrant. The judges called the seizures “egregious” and “outrageous” comparing them to the actions of the British during the U.S. War of Independence, who searched and seized colonists’ property without probable cause. “It was these abuses of power that gave rise to the Fourth Amendment,” the 9th Circuit Court noted. The amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their , homes, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” but FBI agents often overlook this.

“FBI agents and U.S. Attorneys behave in an almost mob-like manner. They demand bank documents, tax returns, and sworn statements from innocent U.S. Private Vaults safe deposit box holders and their family members in order to recover personal property illegally seized from citizens,” said one victim.

Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe that everyone has the right to contract for a private, safe place to store their possessions. But no place can be safe if government agencies violate citizens’ constitutional rights with impunity by seizing their private property. The Foundation’s experts believe that holding U.S. government officials accountable is critical to preventing the abuse of forfeiture laws and the violation of the constitutional rights of the country’s citizens.