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FBI cleared in seizure of anonymous Beverly Hills safety deposit boxes

A federal judge concluded the FBI didn't violate the constitutional rights of owners of safety deposit boxes that were seized last year.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that the FBI didn't break the law by seizing and making an inventory of the contents of about 700 anonymous safety deposit boxes at U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills last year.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in Los Angeles ruled against a group of plaintiffs who had claimed their Fourth Amendment rights were violated by what they said was an unreasonable search and seizure of their belongings as part of a federal investigation into whether U.S. Private Vaults was used by criminals to hide their illegal gains.

The judge rejected claims the FBI had misled a magistrate judge by not specifying it would seek to forfeit the contents of the safety deposit boxes when it requested a search warrant or that the agency had exceeded the scope of the search warrant for the "nest" of boxes by searching and seizing the content of the individual boxes.

"The court’s ruling expressly rejected every claim of improper conduct," Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in LA said in a statement. "In fact, prosecutors and agents acted professionally and ethically during the investigation. Contrary to the assertions made by the plaintiffs and adopted by some in the media, investigators were open and honest with the court that authorized the search and seizure warrants."

A lawyer for the plaintiffs didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

The plaintiffs, who unlike some other customers were using the deposit boxes for legitimate purposes, claimed the FBI got a warrant to search U.S. Private Vaults shortly after the company was indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs and money laundering. But they say the warrant came with a crucial caveat: agents could only seize business property owned by the company, with the warrant specifically stating that it could not be used to take any items from the boxes themselves.

Despite this, the plaintiffs said agents broke into every one of the security boxes held at the facility and emptied them all.

“The government’s dragnet search of innocent people's private security boxes is the most outrageous Fourth Amendment abuse that the Institute for Justice has ever seen,” Robert Frommer, the plaintiffs' attorney at the Institute for Justice, said in a statement last year. “It is like the government breaking into every apartment in a building because the landlord was dealing drugs in the lobby.”

The plaintiffs said that shortly after the raid, they discovered a notice on the company’s storefront that told them to file a claim with the FBI for the return of their things.

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