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L.A. residents forced to battle in court after Feds seize safe deposit boxes

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Dozens of Los Angeles-area residents are being forced to go to court to prove that valuables they had stored in safety deposit boxes confiscated earlier this year during a federal raid were improperly classified as part of a criminal investigation.

In March, FBI and DEA agents armed with warrants raided U.S. Private Vaults, which is located in a strip mall in Beverly Hills, claiming that the location was being utilized by criminals to store ill-gotten gains. But so far, federal prosecutors have not been able to produce evidence of criminal activity against the vast majority of people who were renting the lockboxes, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

In all, prosecutors have only identified 11 people who have criminal convictions in the past or who are facing charges out of about 800 box holders; in all, thanks to fuzzy civil forfeiture law, the government is attempting to confiscate about $86 million in cash, jewelry, and other valuables.

One of those who had his entire life savings confiscated was Joseph Ruiz, an unemployed chef who worked a side gig making bongs out of liquor bottles. According to the Times, he had stashed $57,000 in his lockbox.

Federal agents and prosecutors claimed that there is no way he could have saved that much money on his own, going on to accuse him of selling marijuana without a license. He was forced to go to court to get his money back, and though he did win, the process was both a hassle and an expense.

“It was a complete violation of my privacy. They tried to discredit my character,” he told the Times.

In addition to Ruiz, about 65 other people have filed legal action in court to get their property back because they, too, are not guilty of any wrongdoing and have yet to be charged.

According to the Times’ investigation, the government’s alleged justification for taking valuables and money from those and other people is just as thin as in Ruiz’s case.

Agents utilizing drug-sniffing dogs say the animals discovered the scent of narcotics on some of the seized money, but the Times reports that several analyses of such drug-dog alerts have proven to be false and in some instances, higher than 50 percent.

“In effect, some of these K-9 units are worse than a coin flip,” writes columnist Radley Balko in The Washington Post regarding the reliability of dog searches. He also said that “while dogs are indeed capable of sniffing out illicit drugs, we’ve bred into them another overriding train: the desire to please.

“Even drug dogs with conscientious handlers will read their handlers’ unintentional body language and alert accordingly,” Balko noted further.

Federal agents have also said that money wrapped in rubber bands to keep stacks of cash bound together is a sign of drug trafficking and money laundering, as well as other means of storing currency. And in court documents, federal authorities have claimed that all of the money seized by agents has been deposited in a bank, making it difficult, if not impossible, to link certain drugs to specific bills, according to experts.

U.S. Private Vaults was indicted in February, its owners accused of conspiring with unnamed clients to launder money and sell drugs, but thus far no one has been charged. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles has not proceeded with the case but officials there also are not explaining why, the Times reported.

Civil forfeiture law essentially turns the fundamental American legal principle — innocent until proven guilty.

“Today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting,” said the American Civil Liberties Union. “For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

Jon Dougherty

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