The FBI thought it struck a bonanza when agents seized an estimated $86 million in cash, along with millions more in gold, silver, and jewels, during a March raid on a Beverly Hills safe deposit company, but now a judge is telling the Feds to slow their roll.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday, halting the agency’s attempt to keep the fortune it seized from 369 safe deposit boxes at the U.S. Private Vaults store in an Olympic Boulevard strip mall, saying it hadn’t proven that the owners committed any crimes, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Although the FBI claims it’s justified in keeping the booty because the owners of the safe deposit company were engaged in criminal activity, it hasn’t publicly disclosed any supporting evidence, and Klausner says it also didn’t provide any in its forfeiture notice.
In siding with four box holders who filed one of a dozen lawsuits against the FBI, the judge cited the 5th Amendment prohibition against deprivation of property without due process, stating, “This notice, put bluntly, provides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property whatsoever.”
U.S. Private Vaults has made no statement about its indictment on conspiracy charges, but it has challenged the government’s efforts to keep its customers’ property.
What’s more, although U.S. Magistrate Steve Kim approved the warrants allowing the FBI to seize the company’s business equipment—including the boxes—he explicitly forbade agents from conducting a criminal search of what was inside those boxes. And while the FBI claims most of Private Vaults’ patrons are criminals, it has not charged any of them with a crime.
Robert Frommer, the lawyer for the four box holders protected by Tuesday’s order, tells the Times, “Government officials can’t permanently take your property without first saying what you’ve done wrong. This ruling should lead the FBI to abandon its efforts to steal over $85 million through civil forfeiture.”
Benjamin Gluck, who represents the other Private Vaults customers who are suing to get their property back, likes his clients’ chances against the government.
“Now they’re going to have to try to prove a real case for forfeiture,” he tells the Times, “and we don’t think they can.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A. declined to comment to the Times on the matter.
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