Appeals Court: FBI’s Safe-Deposit Box Seizures Violated Fourth Amendment
The FBI violated the Fourth Amendment when its agents rifled through the contents of more than 700 safe-deposit boxes in the aftermath of a March 2021 raid, a panel of federal appeals court judges ruled unanimously on Tuesday.
In doing so, the judges at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed what innocent victims of the raid and their attorneys have been arguing for years: that the FBI overstepped the bounds of its warrant issued in the case and failed to follow proper protocol when federal agents cracked open safe-deposit boxes, ran the contents past drug-sniffing dogs, and tried to seize some of the money and other valuables found in the boxes.
The 9th Circuit’s ruling pivots on a detail of the case that Reason first highlighted more than a year ago: the existence of so-called “supplemental instructions” for the handling of the safe-deposit boxes seized at U.S. Private Vaults in Beverley Hills.
The warrant authorizing the raid expressly forbade federal agents from engaging in a “criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety [sic] deposit boxes.” Under typical FBI procedure, the boxes should have been taken into custody until they could be returned to their rightful owners. But those “supplemental instructions” drawn up by the special agent in charge of the operation told agents to be on the lookout for cash stored inside the safe-deposit boxes and to note “anything which suggests the cash may be criminal proceeds.”
It is “particularly troubling,” wrote Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. in Tuesday’s ruling, that the government was unable to provide any “limiting principle to how far a hypothetical ‘inventory search’ conducted pursuant to customized instructions can go.”
Elsewhere in the ruling, Smith theorized that if a government agency were “given the discretion to create customized inventory policies” for “each car it impounds and each person detained, the ensuing search stops looking like an ‘inventory’ meant to simply protect property and looks more like a criminal investigation of that particular car or person, i.e, more like a ‘ruse.'”
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