Federal Agents Had No Authority To Seize Contents of Safe Deposit Boxes, Newly Unsealed Warrant Confirms

The warrant affidavit made generalized accusations against U.S. Private Vaults' customers but provided no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by individuals whose assets have been seized.


Before federal agents applied for a warrant to raid a Beverly Hills safe deposit box storage business in March, they used undercover agents and informants to build a lengthy criminal case against the business's co-owners.

What they didn't do, however, was provide evidence of wrongdoing by the dozens of U.S. Private Vaults customers who had their valuable property seized in the raid. Instead, the affidavit submitted to the warrant-issuing magistrate judge, obtained and reviewed by Reason, relied on sweeping generalizations about the business's customer base. Importantly, the FBI also did not tell the magistrate that they planned to forfeit property taken from the safe deposit boxes stored at U.S. Private Vaults, or to use the contents for investigative purposes.

As Reason has previously reported, the warrant that authorized the March 22 raid explicitly forbade the FBI from seizing the safe deposit boxes or their contents. The newly unsealed affidavit that outlined the legal rationale for the raid confirms that U.S. Private Vaults and its owners—some of whom have extensive criminal histories—were the sole targets, officially, of the investigation. In applying for the warrant, Special Agent Lynne Zellhart told Magistrate Judge Steve Kim that the FBI would only seize illicit drugs, guns, and property belonging to U.S. Private Vaults.

"This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes," Zellhart wrote. "Agents shall inspect the contents of the boxes in an effort to identify their owners in order to notify them so that they can claim their property."

That's not what happened. In the months following the raid, federal prosecutors attempted to forfeit more than $85 million in cash and untold amounts of valuables and jewelry from those same boxes. In one court filing, federal prosecutors said they intended to hold the seized property "until such time as plaintiff identifies himself so that the government can offer additional facts pertaining to matters such as whether plaintiff has a drug history…and any other information pertaining to the issue of whether the funds are subject to forfeiture."

In other words, prosecutors are now using the seized contents of the safe deposit boxes to launch additional investigations of individuals who were not subject to the original warrant—and doing it by ignoring the original warrant's prohibition on seizing the contents of the boxes in the first place.

From the perspective of today, the 120-page warrant affidavit filed on March 17 does seem to provide some insight into the FBI's motivations. The document repeatedly outlines, in broad strokes without specific allegations against any person or group of people, allegations against all of U.S. Private Vaults' clients.

"There is no reason for non-criminal clients to use USPV," part of the document reads. "Legitimate customers need not pay to store cash, but can receive interest and insurance by depositing it in a money market or other financial account."

Later: "Only those who wish to hide their wealth from the DEA, IRS, or creditors would instead choose to pay to store actual cash at a single storefront operation owned by the likes of [U.S. Private Vaults' co-owners]."

That's obviously hyperbole. In the months since the raid, Reason and other outlets have reported on several of U.S. Private Vaults' customers who used those safe deposit boxes to store family heirlooms, valuable coins, retirement savings, and other (completely legal) property like flight logs and marriage certificates. Sure, it might make more sense to take advantage of the banking system in many circumstances, but an individual's choice to forego an interest-earning account isn't evidence of criminal intent. Not even close.

Indeed, in another section of the affidavit, the FBI admits that "private safe deposit boxes are not in and of themselves illegal or suspicious."

The affidavit also alleges repeated criminal behavior on the part of U.S. Private Vaults' several co-owners. In conversations with undercover agents and informants that took place over several years, the FBI built a lengthy case against the business's owners. "Separate and unrelated investigations into drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, computer intrusion, insurance fraud, and identity theft led investigators to the doorstep of USPV. Search warrants executed on individual boxes within USPV consistently produced criminal proceeds and evidence of criminal conduct."

But just like criminal activity in one apartment within a building—or criminal allegations against the property management company—would not justify an FBI raid that seizes all the belongings from every other unit, nothing in the FBI's allegations against U.S. Private Vaults seems to justify such a brazen, sweeping raid.

Repeatedly, a federal judge has blocked prosecutors' attempts to forfeit property from U.S. Private Vaults' customers on such thin, circumstantial evidence. In a June ruling, Judge R. Gary Klausner said law enforcement had provided "no factual basis" for the seizures. Last month, in an order rejecting prosecutors' attempt to get a lawsuit seeking the return of some property dismissed, Klausner wrote that the government's case was not based on "anything more than pure conjecture."

The legal filings that justified the raid seem to confirm as much.

NEXT: The Pandemic Showed Home Detention Works

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If the warrant explicitly forbade the FBI to seize the contents of the safe deposit boxes, why is the FBI not in contempt of court? And, given the absence of authorization for the seizure, why are the agents not criminally liable for theft?

    1. Because fuck you, that’s why. Seriously. Even if the court tells the FBI to return the stolen property, they can just say “Make me.”

      1. Yeah, what are you going to do, send the FBI after them?

        “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

        1. Bingo. They certainly aren’t going to send old men and women in black robes after them.

          1. Fantastic work-from-home 0pportunity for every0ne… Work for three t0 eight a day and start getting paid inSDd the range of 17,000-19,000 dollars a month… Weekly payments Learn More details Good luck…

            See……………VISIT HERE

            1. These are 2 pay checks $78367 and $87367. that i received in last 2 months.KJH I am very happy that i can make thousands in my part time and now i am enjoying my life. Everybody can do this and earn lots of dollars from home in very short time period. Just visit this website now. Your Success is one step away Copy and Paste —-> ­­­­Visit Here

            2. Fantastic work-from-home opportunity for everyone… Work for three to eight a day and start getting paid inSd the range of 17,000-19,000 dollars a m0nth… Weekly payments Learn More details Good luck…

              See……………VISIT HERE

          2. Since I started with my online business, I earn $25 every 15 minutes. It sounds unbelievable HMk but you won’t forgive yourself if you don’t check it out. Learn more about it here…

            This is what I do……………. VISIT HERE

        2. “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”

          1. 1.3 billion Catholics.
            94 US Marshals, 3953 Deputy Marshals.
            US armed forces 1.3 million. (technically not allowed to perform law enforcement within the USA)

        3. It would be helpful if the court at least tried to order the FBI to be compliant. Instead they do nothing. Nothing other than allowing themselves to be publicly and knowingly ignored.

          Their absence of action here says they are complicit.

      2. If the warrant specifically forbade seizing contents of the individual boxes, then the FBI should be sanctioned – severely. The agents in charge should be held in contempt, fired and/or imprisoned – like any other citizen would if they so brazenly defied the courts. Civil forfeiture is a government license to steal and clearly unconstitutional under the ‘takings clause.’ If a person is not convicted of a crime, the government should not be able to take their property, plain and simple.

        1. If we had a legitimate POTUS, he/she could order other elements of DOJ and – pretty sure – DOD to enforce the law. (I think the FBI would have to actively resist before the military could be called on).

      3. We need the FBI like a whore needs a husband.

    2. Qualified immunity FTW!

      The FBI has lost a lot of credibility of late, but they’ve acted with impunity for a while. There’s no concept of individual, personal responsibility in federal law enforcement. Go against your boss, he might get you fired, but the “public” are just nameless nothings with no recourse.

      1. Federal agents have something better than qualified immunity, they have Monell.

    3. All this here. We knew they had no authority because the warrant specifically says they can’t take the boxes.

    4. Yeah, I was glad to see that the judge had them arrested for contempt and held pending civil rights charges.

      The FISA judges who held members of the FBI who lied on warrants in the Trump spying case and illegally spied on Americans while framing them for invented crimes set the precedent. It was a great moment for liberty when the courts held that falsifying evidence in order to obtain a warrant was a serious offence and held all of those bureaucrats to account for their crimes.

      Agents of the state will certainly remember how the justice system reacts to those who abuse their authority and trust.

      1. This. The courts are in on the game. They approve one thin inch, then the FBI takes it a mile and then the courts respond with “whadda ya gonna do?”

    5. They didn’t seize. Learn to read, unlike Reason.

      They inventoried and held the box contents, then invited the box renters to come get their stuff. Since the boxes were rented without names, they put up a notice “we have your stuff, contact us to get it back.”

      Everyone, except for a handful of assholes, did that and got their stuff. Many abandoned their stuff, rather than state their name. Others sued.

      Only one lawsuit was successful.

      The FBI did nothing wrong. Nothing was seized, nothing auctioned, nothing destroyed.

      1. dumb faggot

      2. How does that FBI penis taste?

      3. They filled a civil forfeiture claim against a ton of the stuff, so yes, they did seize it. Moron

    6. If the warrant explicitly forbade the FBI to seize the contents of the safe deposit boxes, why is the FBI not in contempt of court? And, given the absence of authorization for the seizure, why are the agents not criminally liable for theft?

      Because you sit here typing, and you don’t do anything about it. That’s how the world works.

  2. It’s really out of line to grab assets without proper consent.


  3. Hasn’t Reason learned anything these last months? As the eviction moratorium extension shows, the legislature and courts no longer matter, only the royal decrees from the President and CDC. Enjoy your dictatorship!

    1. This started with Biden, right? Because no other president has ever circumvented the legislature and the courts before. Ever.

      1. Yeah, back to Andrew Jackson, at least.

      2. No, it did not start with Biden, but he never said that it did.

        Reason certainly tolerated it when it was being used by deep staters to gin up false cases against Trump.

  4. Are any agents getting fired and prosecuted for this?

  5. It was illegal..but they did it anyway. Sounds like the Biden theme song.

  6. Our government is so corrupt. and the FBI is nothing but a bunch of goons with badges. It’s time for the convention of the states to take out this corrupt government for once and for all.

  7. Finders keepers?

  8. They wanted to forfeiture of $85 million in assets that they seized illegally? Make the punitive damages 10x that amount in the lawsuit – $850 million.

    That will either make them reconsider their behavior, or appeal. If they reform themselves, great. If they appeal and it gets high enough maybe the Supreme Court can end this stuff.

    Sue the US Attorneys who filed for the forfeiture, too. And maybe the judge who signed off on the warrant that allowed the FBI to take the ‘nests’. That was a transparent attempt to get at the contents of the boxes, and should have been shot down by anyone paying attention.

    1. Clinesmith laughs.

  9. No one has any authority over anybody until someone grants it.

  10. Are any agents getting fired and prosecuted for this? This is very good article, i am enjoying very much Life Shayari in English

  11. This is very good article, i am enjoying very much Life Shayari in English


    Seriously, the FBI is the enemy of humanity. How are “agents” not going to jail?

    Oh. Right.

  13. Another example of the police harming people, violating the law, not being held accountable, and getting away with it. Biden did it again by unconstitutionally extending the eviction moratorium.

    The whole defund the police movement, was a distraction by Democrats from their police management, where police seize civil assets, police for profit, no-knock raids at the wrong house, etc. Conveniently pointing the finger at Trump and his allegedly racist supporters.

    I wonder if Democrat voters see it. The longer Biden is in office, the more they’ll see it.

    1. Democratic voters see it, and love it. It’s what they voted for.

  14. So the FBI keywords argued in a warrant application that only criminals use safety deposit boxes… Then they failed to find a single piece of contraband or charge a single customer. This whole thing seems predicated on the criminal history of one of the US Private Vault owners, at this point.

  15. If the court really wanted to stop this kind of thing, they would:

    1. Declare that, since the items in the safe deposit boxes were not covered by the warrant, seizing them was NOT a federal law enforcement activity, and was in fact theft under STATE law.

    2. Name names, including both FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

    3. Forward copies to state and local prosecutors and to the state legal ethics committee.

    4. Make all of this public record, and see that the press hears of it.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.