Police agencies don’t need to convict you of a crime or even accuse you of one in order to snatch your home, your bank accounts, or your cash. They merely need to allege that your property is somehow involved in or facilitating a crime. We’ve compared the practice to elementary school bullies stealing a child’s lunchbox. And while advocates of civil forfeiture often claim that it’s biblically sanctioned, we’ve shown that the Bible verse that supposedly blesses the practice actually prohibits it.
And yet civil forfeiture continues, unrestrained by any semblance of due process. A case in point began on March 22, when agents from the FBI and DEA raided US Private Vaults (USPV) in Beverly Hills, searching and seizing the contents of nearly 1,000 of their clients’ safe deposit boxes. The take amounted to more than $85 million in cash and precious metals, along with other valuables worth millions more.
The seizure was blatantly illegal. Agents carried a warrant only giving them the authority to seize property belonging to the private vault itself, not its customers. The warrant was issued pursuant to an indictment issued by a federal grand jury accusing USPV of money laundering and other crimes.
While the indictment leading to the raid didn’t allege that the company’s boxholders had committed any crimes, the Assistant US Attorney in charge of the operation stated:
The majority of the boxholders are criminals who used USPV’s anonymity to rude their ill-gotten wealth … If a deposit box holder identifies himself or herself, the Government will commence a criminal investigation into the holder, including but not limited to determining whether he or she came by the contents in his or her safe deposit box(ex) legally.
In other words, boxholders are guilty until proven innocent. And nearly four months later, the FBI hasn’t accused a single boxholder of any crime. But it’s notified them of its intention to confiscate their property through civil forfeiture without bringing any charges against them.
What’s more, some boxes’ contents have mysteriously disappeared. One 80-year-old boxholder filed a lawsuit alleging that the FBI “failed to account for or return” 40 gold coins worth an estimated $75,000. A significant chunk of her life savings is now gone.
Numerous US Private Vault customers sued the FBI to get their property back. And on June 22, in a lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice on behalf of four boxholders, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting the FBI from proceeding with the civil forfeiture of their property.
We sincerely hope the TRO leads to a permanent injunction against the FBI forbidding it to proceed with its manifestly unjust property seizure. But we’re not holding our breath, since policing for profit is an enormous revenue source for local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 there is a “strong governmental interest in obtaining full recovery of [forfeitable] assets.” Despite the continuing reform efforts by organizations like the Institute for Justice, we don’t foresee the practice ending anytime soon.
Welcome to America, where your property is only safe until the government seizes it. We can’t think of a better reason to move some of it offshore, away from Uncle Sam’s rapacious grasp.