Renters of the safety deposit boxes at the embattled U.S. Private Vaults say they’ve done nothing wrong — and haven’t heard a peep from the FBI, either.
(CN) — Los Angeles County residents who had the contents of their safety deposit boxes seized by the FBI this past March sued the government seeking the return of their property
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in the Central District of California, plaintiffs Paul and Jennifer Snitko, Joseph Ruiz and Tyler Gothier demand the return of items taken during a raid on a Beverly Hills security deposit box company. They claim the FBI seized items from hundreds of boxes, ranging from class rings and birth certificates to legal documents and thousands of dollars in cash, without a warrant and continue to hold the items months after the raid.
The plaintiffs note the FBI had 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 say agents broke into every one of the roughly 800 security boxes held at the facility and emptied them all.
“The government’s dragnet search of innocent peoples’ 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. “It is like the government breaking into every apartment in a building because the landlord was dealing drugs in the lobby.”
Previous lawsuits have been filed over the seizure, but Thursday’s is the first on behalf of people who say they are still waiting on the return of their property.
The plaintiffs say 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. Despite filing claims, they say the feds have ignored their requests and continues to hold their property
On top of not returning their property and saying when they could expect a return, the plaintiffs say the government is looking to conduct unlawful investigations into each customer to see if they came by their items legally — even though none of them have been accused or charged with any wrongdoing.
“That the federal government broke open our safety deposit box was shocking and that we have no idea when we will get our property back is infuriating,” Paul Snitko said. “When you’ve done nothing wrong, you shouldn’t be subjected to an investigation. We’re fighting for our property and for the principle because no one else should have to go through this nightmare.”
A spokesperson for Tracy Wilkinson, acting U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and one of the named defendants, said the office is prepared to fight the lawsuit and noted the FBI is in the process of returning items to some boxholders. In some cases, however, Wilkinson’s office said the FBI has filed forfeiture notices for cash and other items they believe is linked to criminal activity.
According to the complaint, neither the Snitkos or Tyler Gothier have received forfeiture notices. And while it appears attorneys for U.S. Private Vaults were told the government is looking at a forfeiture action for Ruiz’s property, Ruiz has not been given any notice the plaintiffs say.
The group wants a judge to declare that the government’s actions during the March raid violated customers’ Fourth Amendment rights and to order the government to immediately turn over the seized property without any further investigations.