The FBI is clinging to a pretty thin thread, it appears, as it tries to keep about $86 million in cash and millions more in other valuables seized in a safe-deposit-box raid in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Other valuables include gold and silver bars, watches and $1.3 million in poker chips from Aria, a Las Vegas casino.
A judge said, “No,” but that hasn’t derailed the agency’s attempts.
The boxes, from U.S. Private Vaults, are caught up in an indictment of that company, which is charged with conspiring to sell drugs and launder money.
Customers of U.S. Private Vaults filed a class action lawsuit in a desperate bid to retrieve their items.
Prosecutors say the renters should be made to surrender their valuables because they were engaged in criminal activity, according to the Los Angeles Times.
There’s no evidence the renters of the boxes knew anything about the illegal activity.
The U.S. Magistrate, Steve Kim, signed the warrant March 17 giving permission for the FBI to raid the business, but specified – clearly – that “this warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.”
The government “can’t take stuff without evidence in the hopes that you’re going to get it later,” Benjamin Gluck, an attorney who represents box holders suing the government to retrieve their property, said in the Times report. “The 4th Amendment and the forfeiture laws require the opposite — that you have the evidence first, and then you can take property.”
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the FBI’s LA office, told the Times, “We have some basis to believe that the items are related to criminal activity.”
A former federal prosecutor, David B. Smith, the author of “Prosecution and Defense of Forfeiture Cases,” doubts the FBI’s integrity, telling the Times: “This definitely doesn’t smell good.”
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