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 Rifling through a brown paper bag, she furnished a series of documents and items recently withdrawn from sterile bags marked EVIDENCE.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."