Inside the safe deposit box they rented at U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, California, Jennifer and Paul Snitko kept the sort of things that any law-abiding American might want to store securely: a will, backup copies of their home computer's hard drive, and some family heirlooms including jewelry, a fancy watch, and a class ring.
The Snitkos are not criminals. They've not been charged with any crimes. During his career as an aerospace engineer, Paul even held several security clearances.
But since March 22, they've been treated like criminals. The Snitkos' valuables have been in the possession of federal prosecutors following an FBI raid that resulted in hundreds of safe deposit boxes being seized—despite the fact that the warrant authorizing the raid, as Reason previously reported, explicitly forbade federal agents from conducting "a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safe-deposit boxes."
But the FBI did not merely seize the safe deposit boxes housed at U.S. Private Vaults. Federal agents then proceeded to search each box, even brazenly tearing open sealed envelopes and rummaging through the belongings found inside. More than two months after the raid at U.S. Private Vaults, the Snitkos and other innocent people who had their stuff taken have no idea when their valuables might be returned.
"When you've done nothing wrong, you shouldn't be subjected to an investigation," says Paul Snitko. "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."
On Friday, just hours after the Snitkos filed a lawsuit—with help from the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian law firm—challenging what they say was the FBI's unlawful seizure of their safe deposit box, they finally got some good news. Sort of. According to IJ, the couple received a phone call from the FBI informing them that they would have their property returned in "about two to three weeks from now."
As of Friday afternoon, two other clients represented in the same lawsuit have not received similar phone calls.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, joins several other legal actions already launched on behalf of anonymous individuals whose property was similarly caught up in the FBI raid of U.S. Private Vaults. Federal prosecutors have charged U.S. Private Vaults with several crimes including conspiracy to commit money laundering and, earlier this week, filed forfeiture motions against roughly 400 of the nearly 1,000 safe deposit boxes seized in the raid.
As Reason previously reported, the unsealed warrant authorizing the raid of U.S. Private Vaults granted the FBI permission to seize the business's computers, money counters, security cameras, and "nests" of safe deposit boxes—the large steel frames that effectively act as bookshelves for the boxes themselves. However, FBI procedure required federal agents to take the safe deposit boxes into custody as well.
What happened after that is what's truly enraging about the situation. Federal agents were supposed to identify the boxes' owners so property taken in the raid could be returned. In many cases, that was as easy as checking the documents that were taped to the tops of the boxes—but, instead, legal filings show that investigators brazenly rifled through the boxes.
Like other victims of the raid, the Snitkos also had identifying information attached to the lid of their safe deposit box. Opening the box, their lawsuit argues, is a clear violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, while the FBI's continued retention of their property represents both Fourth Amendment and Fifth Amendment violations.
"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," says Robert Frommer, a senior attorney with IJ. "It is like the government breaking into every apartment in a building because the landlord was dealing drugs in the lobby."