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FBI Heist Made Public

by Jayson Hawkins

In another recent episode of “Law Enforcement Gone Wild,” unredacted documents reveal the FBI intentionally lied to a federal judge to obtain a search warrant authorizing agents to inventory hundreds of safe deposit boxes administered by a private security firm. Although the firm, U.S. Private Vaults, had been under investigation for several years, the ill-considered warrant allowed the FBI to pry into the private property of the company’s customers, the vast majority of whom were not under investigation nor suspected of any crime. Reason.com aptly compared this egregious invasion of privacy to police searching every apartment of every resident in a building simply because their landlord had been implicated in a crime.

If the search itself had been the only Fourth Amendment violation, that would be bad enough. But depositions from FBI agents involved in the raid on U.S. Private Vaults show that documenting the contents of the safe deposit boxes was never the intent. The plan, from the start, was to simply take them all.

Were a civilian to do exactly what the FBI did in this case, it would constitute armed robbery and be punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Yet when federal agents steal private property, it is treated as a “seizure,” and the rightful owner’s only recourse is to shoulder the financial and emotional drain of a lawsuit that might eventually result in the return of their property, at great expense. The perpetrators of the unlawful seizure are unlikely to face any personal penalties. The FBI walked away with gold, jewelry, and over $86 million in cash.

While the warrant that provided legal cover for the FBI’s raid explicitly forbade “criminal search or seizure of the contents” of the safe deposit boxes, agents received “supplemental instructions” to hunt for cash that gave off “strong odors” or “may be criminal proceeds.” Drug-sniffing dogs were on hand to assist with the alleged inventory.

“The government misled the court about its forfeiture plans when applying for the seizure warrant, intentionally disregarded the warrant’s substantive limitations, and conducted a pretextual sham ‘inventory’ while searching for evidence of criminality,” stated Robert Frommer and Robert Johnson, Institute for Justice lawyers representing several of the raid’s victims. “Indeed, the whole idea of inventorying the vault was unreasonable on its face, as the best way to serve the purposes of an inventory would have been to leave the property safely locked away and appoint a receiver to wind down USPV’s business without an invasion of privacy.” 

Sources: reason.com, techdirt.com

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