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Civil asset forfeiture: Rounding up the innocent to get to the guilty

Jun 25, 2021 by AFP

What happens when the federal government blatantly violates a court order and takes the property of citizens who are not under criminal suspicion?

Why should innocent property owners have to prove their innocence in order to get their property back from the government?

These are a few of the questions that have come into play when law enforcement agencies seized private property through the most recent horror story involving civil asset forfeiture.

In this ongoing case in California, federal agents exceeded their authority, took property from citizens not even under criminal suspicion, and are refusing to give it back unless they can successfully navigate the government’s demands.

The stories of these people are unfortunately not the first example of the government violating our rights in this manner, but they are certainly not any less shocking.

The raid on U.S. Private Vaults

On March 22, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency acted under a warrant to shut down a Beverly Hills, California business called U.S. Private Vaults.

USPV provided bank-style safety deposit boxes to customers who wanted anonymity. Through biometric identifiers, or a nondescript key, boxholders could store valuables without ever having to identify themselves by name.

Prosecutors say it was a criminal business however, and a grand jury indicted the company on charges of conspiracies to launder money, distribute controlled substances, and structure transactions.

The warrant authorizing the raid allowed investigators to seize a list of items, including deposit box keys, money counters, biometric scanners, security cameras, and computers.

There’s no public indication however, that law enforcement had specific information about criminal suspects with boxes there or had identified boxes that held ill-gotten gains from specific crimes. And the warrant specifically prohibited law enforcement from seizing the contents of the more than 800 privately held safe deposit boxes at the business:

This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of safety deposit boxes … in accordance with their written policies, agents shall inspect the contents of the boxes in an effort to identify their owners in order to notify them so that they can claim their property.

That restriction was ignored. Prosecutors seized the contents of the boxes, intentionally casting a wide net that took in all customers, innocent or otherwise. The FBI now says it intends to hold onto $85 million in cash, and an unspecified haul of gold, silver, and precious metals.

On June 22, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner found that the FBI “provides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffs’ property,” and issued a temporary injunction against the seizures.

The human cost of going after the innocent

It is no surprise that people plausibly professing their innocence are complaining and filing lawsuits. They include a couple that says that they had taped contact information to the top of their box, but that investigators never attempted to contact them.

A 69-year-old retired flooring contractor who says he was spooked by the 2008 financial crash wants back the $60,000 in gold, silver, and cash he says was in his box.

One gentleman says his box contained his entire life savings: $57,000.

A woman says her box held 40 gold coins worth $75,000, but the Department of Justice record for it is not specific. It notes only “miscellaneous coins.”

None of these people has been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors establish the standard: guilty until proven innocent

Now that the contents of these boxes have all been inventoried and catalogued, prosecutors acknowledge that some customers were “honest citizens.” And the assistant U.S. attorney announced a process  by which innocent people may reclaim their legal property:

“If a deposit box holder identifies himself or herself, the Government will commence a criminal investigation into the holder, including but not limited to determining whether he or she came by the contents in his or her safe deposit box(es) legally.”

It’s wrong for federal agents to seize the property of a person who isn’t even suspected of a crime. But it is un-American to consider people guilty unless they prove their innocence.

At a minimum, the American people ought to be able to count on law enforcement officers to do their best to scrupulously obey the law.

Because they chose not to do so, innocent people are now being treated like criminals, and required to prove their innocence.

Ending civil asset forfeiture is one step toward building safer communities through smart policing. Learn more about these reforms and how they’re refocusing the conversation around policing in America.