The FBI raided nearly 1,400 safe-deposit boxes at the U.S. Private Vaults store in Beverly Hills.
Invasion of Privacy
The Feds rummaged through the personal belongings of a jazz saxophone player, an interior designer, a retired doctor, two Century City lawyers, a flooring contractor, and hundreds of others. They took photos of items like password lists, credit cards, prenuptial agreements, pay stubs, immigration and vaccination records, heirlooms, bank statements, and even a will. Agents even discovered cremated human remains in one of the boxes.
Newly unsealed court documents have shown that FBI agents misled the judge who signed the warrant to raid the safe-deposit boxes. They did not disclose the fact that they planned to permanently confiscate everything inside every box that had at least $5,000 in cash or goods. The justification for the confiscation was the presumption that hundreds of unknown box holders were storing assets that may or may not be tied to unknown crimes.
Where's the Proof?
It took a total of five days for agents to finish filling their evidence bags. They collected more than $86 million in cash, gold, silver, rare coins, gem-studded jewelry, and plenty of expensive watches. The U.S. attorney's office tried to block public disclosure of court papers that exposed the deception, but the judge rejected the request to keep the documents sealed.
The deception originally came to light in FBI documents and depositions of agents in class action lawsuits by box holders who claim the raid violated their rights. Court filings also revealed that the federal agents defied restrictions put in place by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim by searching through the owners' belongings for evidence of crimes.
Robert Frommer, a lawyer who is representing nearly 400 of the box holders, had this to say about the situation:
“The government did not know what was in those boxes, who owned them, or what, if anything, those people had done. That’s why the warrant application did not even attempt to argue there was probable cause to seize and forfeit box renters’ property.”
The Original Investigation
The two-year investigation opened in 2019. The FBI LA office leaders believed that U.S. Private Vaults had become a magnet for criminals hiding their stolen goods in their boxes. The business was formally charged with conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money.
Denial of Wrongdoing
The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office deny any wrongdoing, saying that they had no obligation to disclose their plans for indiscriminate confiscation to the judge. They defended their actions on the blanket assumption that every customer was hiding crime-tainted assets.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the warrants were lawfully executed “based on allegations of widespread criminal wrongdoing.”
“At no time was a magistrate misled as to the probable cause used to obtain the warrants,” she said.
U.S. Private Vaults plead guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money, and the investigation is ongoing. Plaintiffs in the class-action suit have asked District Judge R. Gary Klausner to declare the raid unconstitutional. If the judge grants the request, the FBI will be forced to hand over all of the assets that it confiscated in the raid.
The ruling would also block any criminal investigations by preventing prosecutors from using any evidence or information acquired in the raid, including guns and drugs.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Update as of 9/29/2022
A statement released by Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles:
“The court’s ruling expressly rejected every claim of improper conduct. In fact, prosecutors and agents acted professionally and ethically during the investigation. Contrary to the assertions made by the plaintiffs and adopted by some in the media, investigators were open and honest with the court that authorized the search and seizure warrants. This ruling demonstrates that the actions taken in relation to a business that catered to criminals were legally authorized, adhered to policy and were conducted in full compliance with the Constitution.”