Civil Asset Forfeiture

The FBI Returned This Innocent Couple's Safe Deposit Box. It Refuses To Give Back Many Others—and Is Trying To Seize $85 Million in Cash.

"It makes me feel like the government is preying on the vulnerable and the weak to line their own pockets."

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"The silence is deafening," said attorney Jennifer Snitko, who briefly choked up on Thursday as she exited the West Los Angeles Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, home to the FBI's area field office.

She'd just piled into a small interrogation room to meet with two agents. Rifling through a brown paper bag, she furnished a series of documents and items recently withdrawn from sterile bags marked EVIDENCE. None seemed more out of place than a folded, thin white paper with a cross. It was a baptismal certificate.

"Evidence of what?" asks her husband Paul Snitko.

They're still not sure. Jennifer wasn't there to defend a client. It was her and her husband in the hot seat, tasked with proving that they were worthy of retrieving a trove of deeply personal items that the FBI seized about three months ago—without a warrant—from the U.S. Private Vaults (USPV) in Beverly Hills, California.

Eric Boehm, who reported this story for Reason last month, notes that on March 22, law enforcement officials with the bureau raided the establishment as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the business itself. The warrant allowed agents to confiscate a laundry list of things: the company's security cameras, computers, the steel frames that nest the containers. Deemed off-limits: "a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safe-deposit boxes."

The agents were unfazed. They did it anyway, wantonly rummaging through the personal property in approximately 800 boxes—belonging to people who were not suspected of committing any crimes—and then holding those items hostage. (If you feel like getting mad today, feel free to watch them in action.)

"It's changed me," says Jennifer. "The emotional impact this has had on me is unlike anything I've ever experienced….To have this type of sustained stress, insecurity, uncertainty as to what's happening next…to constantly have to be making this a priority in your mind to get your stuff back is just, it's not only emotionally draining." She pauses. "I don't even know how to describe it….I will not look at life the same."

Paul's reaction has admittedly been a bit more erratic. "There was the shock, and the anger, and then the extraordinary anxiety that came the day after I read [about the raid]," referencing a Los Angeles Times article in April detailing the search—which is how he found out about it. His apprehension makes sense for obvious reasons. Yet that's only exacerbated by the fact that the piece partially reads like an FBI press release, centered around prosecutorial allegations that agents seized the bulk of the property from "drug dealers" who were anonymously allowed to "stash guns, fentanyl, and stacks of $100 bills in security boxes."

In the Snitkos' box, along with the baptismal certificate: a pilot's log, heirloom jewelry, collectible coins, a marriage certificate, a birth certificate.

The day after he read it, "I woke up," he says, "and I was looking at the ceiling, and my heart was racing, and I'm like 'Now what?' The FBI has my stuff. Where is it? Why do they have it? How long are they going to keep it? Am I a criminal? You start to make ridiculous assessments like that." He notes that he fell into a depression after processing the news. 

"Not only was my stuff taken without just cause…It was taken by my own government, and they were asking me to prove my innocence and subject myself to an investigation to get my stuff back, which was unlawfully taken to begin with, and had no evidentiary value."

Perhaps most pitiful is that the Snitkos are two of the lucky ones in this story. That word feels ill-fitting for anyone in their shoes. But while the FBI has acquiesced to giving select deposit boxes back, including the one owned by the Snitkos, they are refusing to surrender others, seeking instead to keep a collective $85 million in cash and an unspecified amount of gold, silver, and precious metals from unsuspecting people.

That includes Travis May, who stored gold and $63,000 in cash, and Joseph Ruiz, who had $57,000 in his box—his life savings, which he uses to pay his living and medical expenses, according to a recently amended lawsuit.

"After the government seized this property on March 22, 2021, [Ruiz] filed a claim with the FBI to retrieve it," notes the complaint from the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian public interest law firm representing both men. "However, the government has informed attorneys for USPV that it intends to civilly forfeit Joseph's property. At this time, the government has not provided Joseph with any notice of the purported civil forfeiture proceeding."

Travis May

May, who is on the board of trustees at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website, is "not the least bit surprised," he says. "I never suspected it in a million years, but on the other hand, when it happened, I just wasn't surprised."

He is, however, righteously angry. "We're raised with the understanding that you have a right to privacy in this country," he tells Reason. "They targeted [USPV] for the specific reason that there's privacy there."

It appears agents at the West L.A. Federal Building care a great deal about their own privacy. A group of officers threatened to arrest me yesterday for waiting outside in the courtyard, where I posted up to take pictures of the Snitkos exiting the building. I needed a media permit, they said.

Yet parsing through the clients listed on the lawsuit, it's hard not to conclude that this is part of the federal government's war on privacy. It's also likely part of their war on cash tender. The FBI seemingly has little desire to hold onto baptismal certificates or personal documents, but when it comes to silver, gold, and cold hard cash, they suddenly have an interest. Should the government succeed, plaintiffs Jeni Verdon-Pearsons and Michael Storc, for instance, will forcibly donate their silver, though the suit notes that they, too, have not been provided with "the factual or legal basis for the purported civil forfeiture proceeding."

There's the obvious implication: The government wants the proceeds. But there's also the notion that carrying or storing large sums of money somehow incriminates you in the drug trade, evocative of the Department of Homeland Security's sordid record of habitually seizing large sums of cash from airport travelers.

"What happened in this case is just an absolute staggering Fourth Amendment violation," says Robert Johnson, an attorney with IJ. "There was no probable cause to think any of the box holders committed a crime."

That includes the Snitkos, who finally have their stuff back. But it also includes May, Ruiz, Verdon-Pearsons, Storc, and numerous others who don't, and who might never.

"What about the people who are so scared to come forward, that didn't do anything wrong, that don't feel like they have a voice, that don't have someone supporting them?" asks Jennifer. "It makes me feel like the government is preying on the vulnerable and the weak to line their own pockets."

I ask Paul how he'd respond if all of the systems, levers, and agents who violated his rights were aggregated into one person standing before him. What would he say? The Fourth Amendment "is not a lesson in civics," he replies. "The Bill of Rights was established in 1791—read it."

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Civil Asset Forfeiture FBI Warrants Fourth Amendment Criminal Justice

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33 responses to “The FBI Returned This Innocent Couple's Safe Deposit Box. It Refuses To Give Back Many Others—and Is Trying To Seize $85 Million in Cash.

  1. Chump change. How long before democrats start raiding your 401k, IRAs to pay for “infrastructure”. Oh wait they are already doing that by inflating away the dollar.

    1. Whining, disaffected right-wing malcontents are among my favorite culture war casualties.

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      2. Where did it say they were right wingers, I must have missed that. Good of you to stand tall for the fbi though which is probably the opposite take you would have had 4 years ago but when emotions is all that guide you, you tend to change your mind a lot. Good stuff bruh.

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  2. The FBI are just crooks.

  3. Civil asset forfeiture is an abomination, clearly in violation of the plain language of the 5th Amendment. Fuck the Supremes who found an excuse to allow it (the conservatives plus the horribly overrated RBG).

    And several presidents and governors of both parties have had the power to stop it, but lacked the integrity and/or the stones. Why do you zealots out there keep voting for these mugwumps?

  4. Just wondering, how many of these “victims” have and will again seek more government and vote for candidates who pursue a larger, more invasive state? And how many of them will connect the dots?

    1. Public education.

  5. “It makes me feel like the government is preying on the vulnerable and the weak to line their own pockets.”

    You mean you’re starting to suspect that government is just the strongest gang of thieves? Be careful about airing those suspicions, people will think you’re some kind of conspiracy nut.

  6. No one has to answer or respond to this rhetorical question which is posed solely to stimulate thought, and is specifically denied to be a call to any truly illegal action, except in jurisdictions where jury nullification itself is illegal. (Indeed, if you would be willing to “commit” jury nullification, you are well-advised to keep that bit of information to yourself, or it is guaranteed that you will never have the opportunity to do so if your attitude becomes known. (I several years ago “aged out” of jury service requirements, but until I did I wouldn’t admit I knew what jury nullification was.)

    How many of you reading this article would be willing to practice and would actually commit jury nullification in the case of any individual who was deprived of money or property in this government backed scam who was charged and tried after he elected to exercise a right of private action against the government-employed thieves who took and continued to hold his money or property?

    1. I would, and jury nullification isn’t illegal

      1. Not illegal, but that won’t stop a disgruntled judge from tossing you in the can for contempt. Just like cops regularly arrest people for failure to show sufficient respect disorderly conduct, interfering with an investigation, resisting arrest (while not being arrested), knowing the bogus charges will be dropped. The process is the punishment.

        When there’s no penalty for abuse of power, then there is no rule of law.

  7. “It makes me feel like the government is preying on the vulnerable and the weak to line their own pockets.”
    As OBL wisely pointed out, they aren’t going to go after billionaires, they want the easy picking fruit.

  8. If anyone was storing a cheap plastic flute (which was NOT prescribed for them!) in their safe-box there, and they now get busted, it is all on THEIR head! NO sympathy for psychotic, deranged, anti-Government-Almighty crooks!

    PS…
    To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the lung flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

  9. Why the 2nd Amendment exists.

    Anytime an entity (say gov) gets a monopoly on gun-force; they do whatever they want; just like criminals.

    — A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a (NOTE ***)free State***, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

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  11. Awesome post, I read your whole article. This is really useful information. The points you mentioned above are very useful for everyone. I am very happy to read this post.

  12. Be interested to know who the judge is…he specifically said the contents were off limits and the FBI is specifically ignoring the judge’s orders. Am I wrong or is that not contempt of court right there? First thing is start hounding the judge, nothing like a reporter’s microphone in his face asking him some embarrassing questions to get him to take his job seriously.

    1. I’m sort of curious why this hasn’t happened.

    2. The warrant said no “a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safe-deposit boxes.”

      Key word is “criminal”.

      But if you seized the vault containing the boxes themselves you have to do an “administrative” search to log the contents for safekeeping. And if you just happen to find money or something, then it must be illegal and you have to confiscate it. Right?

      Anyway, the FBI is a lot of things but they aren’t stupid. They know how to parse a warrant to stay out of trouble and still get what they want.

      Judge isn’t gonna do shit because he can’t under the wording of the warrant.

  13. The war on drugs has ruined the fourth amendment.

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  15. The FBI needs to be shut down they are no different than organized criminals. and every agent that was involved in this criminal stealing needs to have everything taken from them so they know what it feels like. our federal government is a danger to our liberty and freedom, our founding fathers are turning in their graves what has become of the overreaching corrupt federal government.

  16. The FBI needs to be shut down they are no different than organized criminals. and every agent that was involved in this criminal stealing needs to have everything taken from them so they know what it feels like. our federal government is a danger to our liberty and freedom, our founding fathers are turning in their graves.

    1. That’s because the federal government won’t hold the FBI accountable, partly because a lot of politicians would rather use the FBI to take our stuff, than to protect us. The Democrats didn’t hold the FBI accountable for the Russia hoax, for letting Clinton off the email hook, for Biden’s laptop, or Joe’s selling out the US to save his son from prosecution. Any FBI agent can see what happened.

  17. Hey, if you didn’t do anything wrong…oh wait. Never mind.

  18. Easy Ameяikan solution. Outlaw safe deposit boxes. (and personal safes)

  19. If only Comrade Stalin knew about this…..

  20. This happens to poor marginalized citizens every day, not just civil forfeiture, they are taken against their will locked in cages and held for ransom. They lose their jobs, homes, families, unable to afford an attorney that would actually advocate for you, you end up pleading guilty to crimes you did not commit. The actions of the government are deplorable in this case my hope is that now that it is happening to non marginalized people, maybe more people will be willing to take action.

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