Lawsuits About FBI Warrantless Search of Safe Deposit Boxes Allowed to Proceed

Two lawsuits will move forward against the federal government over the FBI’s warrantless search of hundreds of safe deposit boxes, a court ruled this week. Last year, in a related case, a federal appellate judge called the FBI’s raid “egregious” and “outrageous.”

“This case is yet another chapter in the long legal saga of the FBI’s criminal investigation of U.S. Private Vaults,” wrote federal Judge Robert Klausner of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in his rulings on Thursday, which denied the government’s motions to dismiss.

In March 2021, the FBI raided U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills safe deposit box company, and federal agents seized and searched all of its customers’ deposit boxes. According to court filings, the boxes contained millions of dollars in cash, plus a mix of jewelry, personal effects, and documents such as wills and prenuptial agreements.

The FBI had a warrant for the raid itself and to seize the customers’ boxes, but that warrant explicitly did not authorize any “criminal search or seizure” of the boxes’ actual contents. The warrant application also omitted key details of the raid plan, including that the special agent in charge had directed other agents to open each box, preserve fingerprint evidence, inventory the contents, and have drug dogs sniff all the cash. Some of the former U.S. Private Vaults customers say their property was never returned, giving rise to some of the claims in the lawsuits.

“We are happy to be able to move forward into discovery and to be able to basically have the government answer for what happened for the property that went missing,” said Joseph Gay, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the libertarian nonprofit representing several former U.S. Private Vaults customers.

In January, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously likened the FBI’s actions to British colonial-era “writs of assistance” — the sort of overreach that gave rise to the American Revolution and, subsequently, the Bill of Rights. “It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place,” the 9th Circuit ruled.

In one suit, Jeni Pearsons and Michael Storc, a married couple, claim the FBI seized $2,000 in cash and $20,000 worth of silver during the raid, but the cash was never returned. In another suit, Donald Mellein, a retiree, alleges the FBI seized 110 gold coins but never returned 63 of them that, combined, were worth more than $100,000.

In near-identical rulings this week, Klausner, the judge, determined both lawsuits may proceed against the federal government, although he dismissed all claims against the FBI special agent who led the U.S. Private Vaults raid and drafted the incomplete warrant affidavit. Klausner also dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims against the government, but not all of them. (The federal prosecutor’s office in the cases declined comment.)

Gay, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said that these rulings in the related federal cases — in the 9th Circuit and the district court — complement each other.

“The first case shows the government never should have opened the safe deposit boxes to begin with,” Gay said. “This case shows that, once they did, they had an obligation to keep the property safe.”

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