Court blasts FBI for confiscating privately owned contents of vaults

(Photo by Brock Wegner on Unsplash)
(Photo by Brock Wegner on Unsplash)

A new report from the Institute for Justice reveals that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against the federal government in that long-running fight over the contents of privately rented vaults at U.S. Private Vaults.

”The decision slammed the FBI for overstepping its authority when it opened up hundreds of renters’ boxes, 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 top-flight legal team explained.

The IJ had sued the government over the confiscation of the personally owned cash and other valuables.

”Today’s opinion draws a line in the sand, to ensure something like this never happens again,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “If this had come out the other way, the government could have exported this raid as a model across the country. Now, the government is on notice its actions violated the Fourth Amendment.”

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The court’s opinion was written by Judge Milan D. Smith, who said the FBI’s actions were like those abuses that prompted the Founders to create the Bill of Rights.

”[T]he 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. It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place,” he ruled.

”We knew that what the FBI did to us and so many others was wrong and today’s decision is a validation,” said Jennifer Snitko. “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.”

Federal agents raided the company, opened all of the privately rented security boxes, took everything out, rifled through it, searched the contents, and then kept what they wanted – property that was worth some $100 million.

And agents claimed they had the right to do just that.

The IJ said, “for years, the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) insisted that they did nothing wrong at US Private Vaults. 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. The DOJ 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 government promised the magistrate that it would not conduct a criminal search or seizure of the boxes,” said IJ senior attorney Robert Frommer. “After years of litigation, today’s opinion shows that not to be true. The government lied to justify its forfeiture scheme, and in the end the lie was its undoing.””

It was in a commentary by John W. Whitehead of the rights-defending Rutherford Institute that he described the mindset of a government whose agents would simply break into a private company, take private assets, and then keep them.

”We’re not dealing with a government that exists to serve its people, protect their liberties and ensure their happiness. Rather, we are the unfortunate victims of the diabolical machinations of a make-works program carried out on an epic scale whose only purpose is to keep the powers-that-be permanently (and profitably) employed,” he said. “Case in point: the FBI.”

”Whether the FBI is planting undercover agents in churches, synagogues and mosques; issuing fake emergency letters to gain access to Americans’ phone records; using intimidation tactics to silence Americans who are critical of the government, or persuading impressionable individuals to plot acts of terror and then entrapping them, the overall impression of the nation’s secret police force is that of a well-dressed thug, flexing its muscles and doing the boss’ dirty work,” he wrote.

”Clearly, this is not a government agency that appears to understand, let alone respect, the limits of the Constitution.”

He explained the basis of the FBI’s attack on the property owners was because there was a suspicion the company was letting drug dealers stash items in those vaults.

So agents demanded to take everything, whether the owner was even suspected of a crime or not. No charges were filed.

”It’s hard to say whether we’re dealing with a kleptocracy (a government ruled by thieves), a kakistocracy (a government run by unprincipled career politicians, corporations and thieves that panders to the worst vices in our nature and has little regard for the rights of American citizens), or if we’ve gone straight to an idiocracy,” he said.

”This certainly isn’t a constitutional democracy, however.”

He explained, “Some days, it feels like the FBI is running its own crime syndicate complete with mob rule and mafia-style justice.”

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