Los Angeles, CA — For decades now, the federal government and their cohorts in law enforcement have been carrying out the theft of the citizenry on a massive scale using Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF).
The 1980’s-era laws were designed to drain resources from powerful criminal organizations, but CAF has become a tool for law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to steal money and property from countless innocent people.
As the following case out of Beverly Hills illustrates, no criminal charge is required for this confiscation, resulting in easy inflows of cash for law enforcement departments and the proliferation of abuse. This phenomenon is known as “policing for profit” and the latest example is exceedingly egregious.
A year after we originally reported this story, we are finding out just how egregious it actually was with the release of newly unsealed court documents. According to the documents, the FBI misled the judge who approved the warrant and used this bogus warrant to steal from and violate the rights of hundreds of innocent people.
Using bogus excuses, the FBI raided roughly 1,400 safety deposit boxes at a single location in Beverly Hills. They made random and apparently unsubstantiated accusations that the U.S. Private Vaults location in Beverly Hills was aiding criminal activity. The business was indicted in Feb. 2020 on claims that it marketed itself to criminals to help them launder money and dodge government detection.
But no one was ever charged and the claims were bogus. Now, taxpayers will likely be held liable as there is a massive lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims whose rights were trampled and many of whom have never gotten back their property.
As the Institute for Justice writes:
When FBI officials marched into US Private Vaults in March 2021, they executed their plan. And to gather more evidence to support their forfeiture efforts, those same FBI officials ignored the seizure warrant’s command that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.” Under the warrant, agents were only supposed to “inspect the contents of the boxes”—not to search for potential violations of law, but simply to “identify their owners in order to notify them so that they can claim their property.”
But despite its promises to the court, the FBI created custom forms that asked agents to look for information the government could use in pursuing forfeitures. One document, for instance, asked agents to “note things such as how the cash is bundled,” “if it has a strong odor,” or “if there appears to be drug residue.” Another instructed that cash over $5,000 should be sniffed by a “canine unit,” and, in fact, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service arranged for numerous drug dogs to be on site. The government agreed that it gathered this evidence because it “could be probative later on” in showing that the government could forfeit that money or other property.
Under the warrant’s terms, agents should have stopped when they encountered letters taped to the top of closed boxes that identified the box’s renter and beneficiaries. Yet invariably agents pored through each box, capturing photographic and video records of renters’ password lists, wills, personal notes and other sensitive documents. Now, the FBI and other agencies have copies of these records in their evidentiary databases, where renters’ private, personal information will remain for agents to access and analyze.
In May 2021, the government carried out its plan to commence administrative forfeiture proceedings against hundreds of boxes containing over $80 million in cash and tens of millions more in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables.
“For months the FBI held onto our precious metals and treated me and my husband like criminals. If we had not fought back, we could have lost a significant part of our life savings forever,” said Jeni Pearsons, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Our lawsuit can’t turn the clock back and keep our rights from being violated, but we want to make sure the government never does this to anyone else and doesn’t hold onto the records and photos of our private possessions.”
The FBI confiscated, or rather, robbed people like Joseph Ruiz as well — stealing his entire life savings.
The FBI falsely claimed that Ruiz, who is a chef, made the $57,000 they stole from him from drug dealing because a drug dog alerted to the presence of drugs on the cash.
It is widely known that a large percentage (upwards 0f 90%) of U.S. paper money contains trace amounts of cocaine. Having a large amount of cash will most assuredly alert a drug dog.
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In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that government does not have probable cause to seize cash from individuals based only on a drug-detection dog's reaction; stating specifically that the majority of money in circulation has drugs on it.
But court precedents and ethical enforcement of the law apparently mean very little to the FBI who confiscated the life savings of hundreds of people for this very reason. Ruiz was forced to produce documents proving his innocence and show the source of the money was legitimate in order to get it back. In other words, he was guilty until proven innocent.
But Ruiz was one of many people robbed by these agents. In total, these thieving FBI agents robbed 800 people of $86 million in cash, jewelry, and precious metals. Hundreds of those involved have contested the government-sanctioned theft and 65 of them have filed suit.
“It was a complete violation of my privacy,” Ruiz said. “They tried to discredit my character.”
According to the LA Times, "prosecutors, so far, have outlined past criminal convictions or pending charges against 11 box holders to justify the forfeitures. But in several other cases, court records show, the government’s rationale for claiming that the money and property it seized was tied to crime is no stronger than it was against Ruiz."
The feds claimed that the other robbery victims were guilty for the mere ways the money was stored and how it smelled. If it was wrapped in rubber bands, it had to come from drug sales. If it smelled like drugs to the dog, the owner was guilty.
“The notion that the old rubber bands mean they must be drug dealers is ludicrous,” one of the victim's lawyers, Benjamin Gluck said.
Gluck told the Times that U.S. Private Vaults customers “included many immigrant business owners who escaped repressive regimes where banks are unsafe and have collected amounts of cash as their life savings over many, many years.”
In other words, the FBI is robbing innocent people of their life savings and using bogus excuses to justify the theft.
Robert Frommer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice summed up this scenario accurately in a statement to Business Insider.
"The scope of what the FBI did is unprecedented," Frommer said. "This was the largest armed robbery in United States history, and it was committed by the FBI."
Unfortunately, this entire 4th Amendment violation carried out by the FBI is considered legal under current US law and it is up to the victims' lawyers to get some semblance of justice. Despite most everyone whose valuables were stolen being innocent, the U.S. Attorney's office said “nothing requires the government to ignore evidence of a crime that it sees” while taking inventory of seized goods.
And this is why in the last 30 years, the amount of "profit" stolen through civil asset forfeiture has skyrocketed.