While U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills safe deposit box company, has been charged in a sealed indictment with conspiring to sell drugs and launder money, its customers have not, and now the FBI trying to confiscate $86 million in cash and millions of dollars more in jewelry and other valuables that agents found in 369 of the boxes in what box holders and their lawyers have denounced as a brazen abuse of forfeiture laws, reports the Los Angeles Times. Prosecutors claim the forfeiture is justified because the unnamed box holders were engaged in criminal activity but have disclosed no evidence to support the allegation. Attorneys for the customers say that if the FBI wanted to search the boxes it first needed to meet the standard for a court-issued warrant: Probable cause that evidence of specific crimes would be found. Forfeiture laws enable the government to confiscate assets tied to criminal activity. The generally low standard of proof makes it an appealing tool for prosecutors.
The indictment says U.S. Private Vaults marketed itself to attract criminals who wanted to store valuables anonymously and keep tax authorities at bay. An owner and a manager of U.S. Private Vaults were involved in drug sales, it says, and co-conspirators helped customers convert cash into gold to evade government suspicion. Proponents of forfeiture say it deters crime with the threat that cash, cars and other property acquired illegally, or used for illicit purposes, might be confiscated. Critics, however, say it is often abused by police and prosecutors who can seize of people’s property even if they lack evidence to prove their guilt in a criminal trial. In their lawsuits, box holders claim the FBI is forcing them to give up either their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures or their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.