The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the seizure of 700 safety deposit boxes under the process of civil asset forfeiture went beyond the warrant issued and violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
The case began in 2021, when the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) obtained a warrant to search a storage facility in Beverly Hills, California, as part of its investigation into the company US Private Vaults for the alleged crime of money laundering, stating the agency would only inventory the safety deposit boxes. Some of the 700 safety deposit boxes seized in the raid where allegedly related to the investigation, but others were not. Those whose safety deposit boxes were seized that were not related to the investigation attempted to get their safety deposit boxes back from the FBI, but the FBI initially stated it would keep the safety deposit boxes and the property in them through the process of civil asset forfeiture. It later returned the deposit boxes to the owners who were not involved in the investigation.
Several of the safety deposit box owners sued the FBI in 2022 in order to force the agency to either destroy or return to the owners of the safety deposit boxes records related to the searches of the owners’ boxes. In 2022, the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled in favor of the FBI, claiming the search and seizure fell under the inventory search doctrine exception to the Fourth Amendment.
The appellate court overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that the FBI’s action exceeded the purview of the original warrant. It also ruled that the FBI did not follow its own written policies, which require that the agency inventory the items seized and then contact the owners of the items. The appellate panel specifically pointed to supplemental instructions provided to law enforcement officials which deviated from the stated policy and were created specifically for the search of the particular storage facility. According to the panel, this took the search outside of the bounds of the inventory search doctrine, which requires a standardized policy.
The process of civil asset forfeiture has come under scrutiny recently for its use by law enforcement across both the state and federal level. Civil asset forfeiture is when law enforcement initiates proceedings to keep or sell property they believe to be involved in the commission of a crime. Civil asset forfeiture does not require that the owner of the property actually be charged or convicted of a crime, and in most cases the standard for seizure is much lower than the traditional “beyond a reasonable doubt” criminal legal standard of proof. Once law enforcement invokes civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof shifts to the owner of the property to prove the property was not involved in any criminal activity.
In some states, law enforcement is allowed to keep the money obtained as a result of civil asset forfeiture, adding it to the department’s discretionary budget. Even in states that limit law enforcement’s ability to keep assets obtained through civil asset forfeiture, they may still be kept through the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which allows the federal government to share proceeds from civil asset forfeiture with local law enforcement.
The case has been remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.