Judge backs FBI raid on Beverly Hills safes

A federal judge ruled Friday that the FBI’s seizure of tens of millions of dollars in cash and valuables from 700 safe deposit boxes in Beverly Hills did not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner’s ruling endorsed law enforcement tactics that tested the limits of federal agents’ aggressiveness in seizing cash and property in the absence of any evidence that the owner has committed a crime.

Klausner has agreed to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 400 people who rented boxes that officers searched at the US Private Vaults store on Olympic Boulevard.

The judge found no impropriety in the way the government obtained or executed the warrants authorizing the March 2021 raid.

The decision did not address some of the more controversial aspects of the raid, such as the FBI’s attempt to confiscate the assets of box holders on the assumption that they were criminals, even in cases where agents had no evidence to validate their suspicions.

Prosecutors welcomed the decision.

“This decision demonstrates that the actions taken in relation to a business that catered to criminals were legally authorized, complied with policy and were conducted in full compliance with the Constitution,” said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. American in Los Angeles.

Rob Johnson, a lawyer for the box holders, has vowed to appeal.

“If today’s shocking decision stands,” he said, “it will set a dangerous precedent that will allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to circumvent the 4th Amendment,” which prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures”.

The raid, which effectively shut down US Private Vaults, came two weeks after the company was charged in a sealed indictment with conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money. Some of the customers were storing the proceeds of crime in their boxes, the government charged.

In their warrant application, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim for permission to seize the store’s safe racks for forfeiture, but “not their content. »

They assured Kim that officers would follow written FBI policies to inventory the contents of the box to protect against allegations of theft, and then notify the owners that they could reclaim their property.

The warrant request omitted a central part of the FBI’s plan: the permanent confiscation of anything inside any box containing at least $5,000 in cash or property, a senior FBI agent recently testified. .

The FBI’s rationale for the undisclosed wholesale forfeiture was its assumption that all customers, who rented their boxes anonymously, were storing assets related in some way to unknown crimes, according to court records.

FBI agents search safes in private US safes in Beverly Hills in a video screenshot taken from a US District Court document.

(United States District Court)

The FBI attempted to confiscate more than $86 million in cash and millions more in gold, silver, rare coins and jewelry, but in doing so accused many box holders of committing crimes. crimes for which he had no evidence.

Klausner rejected the box holders’ claim that the government breached its duty of candor with the court by leaving the net forfeiture plan out of the warrant application.

The omission had no bearing on whether Kim had found probable cause to seize the company’s business equipment, so it was “immaterial” to the warrant application, Klausner concluded.

Klausner’s ruling did not mention the privacy breach documented by the plaintiffs: Federal agents took photos and taped password lists, bank statements, pay stubs, immigration and many other private documents of box holders who are not criminals.

The FBI archived files on everything it found in the boxes in a database that agents use to store information for criminal investigations. Klausner denied the plaintiffs’ request to order the FBI to remove their private information from the database, known as Sentinel.

Klausner also dismissed allegations that the government exceeded warrant limits, which explicitly prohibited “criminal search or seizure” of the contents of the box.

The plaintiffs, led by Los Angeles aeronautical engineer Paul Snitko, argued that the government’s plan to inventory everything in the boxes was a pretext to rummage through them for evidence.

Klausner said there was no doubt that the government “expected, or even hoped, to find criminal evidence during its inventory.”

“Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the mere presence of such a pattern is not enough on its own,” he wrote, citing a ruling by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in another search case. and input. “An inadmissible ground for inquiry must be the only why the agents took the inventory.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the ruling makes it clear the agents handled the case “non-maliciously and in a manner consistent with the law, FBI policies, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution.” “.

Los Angeles Times

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