An appeals court panel will soon decide whether the actions of FBI agents violated people’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.
On Thursday, oral arguments were held in front of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel of judges about a case in which FBI agents raided people’s safety deposit boxes.
The incident in question stems from a case in which a business in Beverly Hills was facing accusations of money laundering. During the investigation, FBI agents perused through safety deposit boxes that they seized, cataloging lots of cash and expensive jewelry and watches.
The problem, though, was that the owners of a lot of the safety deposit boxes never were accused of committing a crime.
Rob Johnson, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, spoke with Fox News this week, saying he was “extremely optimistic” regarding the upcoming decision by the panel. He said:
“I think the public sees this and recognizes that this is just a total abuse of people’s constitutional rights.”
The incident happened in March of 2021, when the FBI seized approximately 1,400 safe deposit boxes that were located in U.S. Private Vaults. That company, based in Beverly Hills, was used by “unsavory characters to store criminal proceeds,” court documents show.
In total, FBI agents took roughly $86 million in cash, plus many other valuables – including silver, gold bars, coins and plenty of jewelry.
Two months later, the FBI “commenced administrative forfeiture proceedings” against many of those boxes.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial process that the government can use to seize property and/or money that they believe is linked to crimes – even if they never charge the person who owns the assets with a crime.
Eventually, the business pleaded guilty to money laundering charges. But, as recently as last October, no additional criminal charges were filed in the case, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
This particular case was brought through a class action lawsuit by people who rented the safe deposit boxes and had their stuff taken. They’ve accused the FBI of violating the rights they have under the Fourth Amendment of protection from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as rights under the Fifth Amendment of protection from having their property taken without receiving compensation.
In court on Thursday, Institute for Justice lawyers argued the FBI “broke open hundreds of safe deposit boxes, and then it tried to civilly forfeit everything in those boxes worth over $5,000,” even though they didn’t have probable cause to do so.
“The search … had an objective function to uncover evidence of crimes.”
The Institute is asking the judge’s panel to state that individuals’ rights were violated by the FBI. In addition, they want the government to be forced to destroy all copies agents made of private documents during the search.
This includes trusts, wills and medical records.
The case is before the appeals court panel because a lower court ruled in favor of the FBI last year.