FBI Seizures From Safe Deposit Boxes Violated US Constitution: Federal Court


The FBI’s seizure of contents from safe deposit boxes during a raid violated the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court ruled on Jan. 23.

In 2021, agents raided U.S. Private Vaults, a business in California that allowed people to rent safe deposit boxes anonymously, based on the belief that criminals were using the service.

The search warrant stated that agents could only open the boxes to inventory their contents and identify the owners for the return of their property. However, agents brought drug-sniffing dogs and planned to set aside cash worth more than $5,000, with the intent to seize the money.

The FBI searched the contents of about 700 safe deposit boxes.

When people who rented boxes asked the FBI for their belongings back after the raid, the bureau refused, saying it was going to file for forfeiture or transfer ownership to the government. The renters of the boxes then sued.

A U.S. district judge previously ruled in favor of the government, finding the search was covered by what’s known as an inventory exception to the requirement for a warrant in the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

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That exception, though, does not apply to the raid on U.S. Private Vaults, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled.

The ruling hinged largely on how the exception requires searches to operate on standardized instructions and highlighted how the FBI, in the Beverly Hills raid, used supplemental, customized instructions.

“Once the government begins adding a set of ‘customized’ instructions to a ’standardized‘ inventory policy—particularly the type of custom instructions presented by this case—the entire search stops being conducted pursuant to a ’standardized’ policy,” U.S. Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote in the ruling.

‘No Probable Cause’

During oral arguments, the appeals court panel compared the search to the “writs of assistance,” or unlimited searches executed by British authorities in pre-founding America.

“What you’ve got is a declaration or an understanding that from the beginning, the authorities intended to search all the boxes, all of them. There was not probable cause available with respect to all of the boxes, but they did it anyway. Now, how do we distinguish that from what the colonists were upset about, and which led to the Fourth Amendment?” Judge Smith said at the time.

In response, a government lawyer said the raid was “a unique situation” that involved “rampant illegal conduct.” U.S. Private Vaults has acknowledged in a plea agreement to recruiting criminals and conspiring to launder money.

“We note that it is particularly troubling that the government has failed to provide a limiting principle to how far a hypothetical ‘inventory search’ conducted pursuant to customized instructions can go,” Judge Smith said.

Many of the plaintiffs have already got their belongings back from the FBI but pressed forward with the case for an opinion in their favor.

The ruling remanded the case back to U.S. District Judge Robert Klausner, who previously dismissed the case, for a ruling that directs the FBI to destroy records the bureau collected on the box renters who are members of the class-action case.

The opinion “draws a line in the sand, to ensure something like this never happens again,” Rob Johnson, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which was representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “If this had come out the other way, the government could have exported this raid as a model across the country. Now, the government is on notice its actions violated the Fourth Amendment.”

“This is a good day for our country and the principle that the government’s power to search our property has limits,” Jennifer Snitko, who was among the box renters, added.

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Significant Privacy Interest’

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles told news outlets that the office is “prepared to destroy records of the inventory search.”

The ruling also said the government went outside the authority outlined in the search warrant.

U.S. Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke concurred with the ruling in full, while U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos T. Bea, agreeing that the search violated the Constitution, found the second finding regarding the warrant scope to be unnecessary.

Judge Smith also wrote a separate, concurring opinion that addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that the inventory exception, typically applied to automobiles, should not extend to stationary locations like apartment buildings or safe deposit boxes.

“Plaintiffs do have a significant privacy interest in their safe deposit boxes, given that their conduct indicates they intended their items to be ‘preserved … as private,’ and society generally views the privacy expectations of items in safe deposit boxes as reasonable,” Judge Smith wrote.

“Ultimately, given the greater privacy interests at stake and the implication of the rights of third parties,” he added later, “I would hold that the inventory search doctrine does not extend to searches of box contents in a locked vault.”


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