Beverly Hills, CA

FBI Seize $86 Millions: When a "Private Safe" Loaded with Cash, Bitcoins & Jewelry isn't Safe Enough

Clarence Walker
Fbi Seize $86 Million From Private Vaults and Safe Deposit BoxesPhoto

FBI Seize $86 Millions: When a Private Safe Loaded with Cash, Bitcoins & Jewelry Isn't Safe Enough.

By Clarence Walker Jr.

FBI often seizes vehicles, houses, tons-of-cash, jewelry, art, boats, and other valuable assets belonging to citizens who haven't been charged with a crime. Per customary, months later, people who had their property seized receive a typical boilerplate notice stating the FBI is planning to permanently keep their property without offering a thorough explanation.

Imagine for a split second you have the authority to store family heirlooms, cash, precious metals, jewelry, and sensitive documents in a safe deposit box. Now, again, just close your eyes and imagine the government took it away from you claiming you may have committed an unknown crime. This nightmare scenario is what happen to 700 safe deposit box holders in Beverly Hills, California.(Another report says 1400 safes with property were confisicated).
FBI Agents Search Safe Deposit Boxes at Private FaultPhoto bySearch & Seizure: U.S. District Court, California

A team of bold FBI agents opened "hundreds of safe deposit boxes" and seized any box containing any property of at least $5,000 worth of cash, precious metals or jewelry at a business called U.S. Private Vault.

Well, Linda Martin experience the same fate when the FBI took her life savings from a safe-deposit box during a 2021 raid of US Private Vaults in Beverly Hills. Investigators said private vault was a criminal operation which helped drug dealers to hide their cash and help people to avoid paying IRS taxes. Martin, thinking her money would eventually be returned in full she thought the company’s alleged wrongdoing had nothing to do with her. Yet several months later, Martin and hundreds of other innocent people who had their safe-deposit boxes taken also received a notice stating that the government wanted to forfeit their cash, jewelry and gold coins.

"They didn't tell us why they took our money. They haven't told us anything as far as what we did wrong," Martin, 58, told Fox News. "We haven't done anything wrong. We work and we saved our money because we were trying to save and buy a house."

Attorney Characterize the FBI Raid on Beverly Hills Private Vaults the Largest Armed Robbery in U.S. History

"The scope of what the FBI did is unprecedented," Institute for Justice attorney Robert Frommer said, in a Business Insider interview. Frommer and his firm represents 400 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the bureau. Frommer stated the raid on U.S. Private Vaults was the "largest armed robbery in U.S. history."

Two years later, Martin still remains in the dark not knowing why her money was taken or if the almighty Feds return it to her. "The FBI, feel like they can get away with anything," she said. "I just feel like it's unfair."

On March 22, 2021, the FBI seized Martin's and up to 1,400 other customers' safe deposit boxes from U.S. Private Vaults. The FBI took the $40,200 Linda had struggled to save for a down payment on a home in addition to another $86 million in cash and tens of millions more in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables from other safe deposit box renters. 

Martin found out about the raid while watching the local news with her husband. 

"I just couldn't believe it," Martin said. "I really didn't believe it. I sat down to start watching the news with him, and the FBI was raiding our private vault place."

Several months later, she received a notice stating that the FBI wanted to keep her money through a process known as civil forfeiture. Confused by the legal jargon, Martin chose to file a petition with the bureau, the first option listed on their notice, without realizing doing so conceded that her property could be forfeited and, consequently, allowing the FBI to determine if she could get her money back.

Martin told Fox News she hasn't received a determination.
FBI Claim U.S. Private Vaults & Safe Deposit Boxes Was a Front for drug dealers & tax dodgersPhoto bySearch & Seizure: U.S. District Federal Court in California

Angry Citizens Legal Fight to Recoup Their Property

Around June, 2021, only months after the FBI raid on the Olympic Boulevard strip mall, Federal judge R. Gary Klausner issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government's attempt to keep the millions seized from deposit boxes, saying the Feds hadn't proved the owners possessing their funds committed any crimes. The federal prosecutors cited that $154,600 in cash from one box holder and $330,000 from another should be forfeited because a drug-sniffing dog detected traces of illegal narcotics on the funds.

Central California Federal Judge R. Gary KlausnerPhoto byWikipedia

Martin told news outlets that to her knowledge, no one who had their assets taken have been charged with or even suspect of any crime. Rather, the FBI had been investigating U.S. Private Vaults, which shut down following the raid and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money. 

Linda Martin is filing a class-action lawsuit to recover her life-savings which were seized from her safe deposit box by the FBI in a 2021 raid. 

"Unfortunately, this is legal," Institute for Justice attorney Bob Belden told Fox News. "Civil forfeiture is a process in the United States where law enforcement can take property from people who have never been charged with a crime." 

Two weeks ago, Martin and Institute for Justice filed a putative nationwide class action lawsuit seeking to help anyone who has had property taken by a government agency in the last six years and received a deficient forfeiture notice. 

According to the FBI notice Martin received, her life savings were taken under administrative forfeiture, an action under the Tariff Act of 1930 that allows federal agencies to seize property without judicial involvement. 

"It's really a system where the agency is the not only the prosecutor, judge and jury," Belden said, "but also, a governor or a president thinking about giving a pardon." 

Still thinking this was just an innocent misunderstanding, Linda struggled to respond, ultimately choosing to file a “petition for remission.” Unbeknownst to Linda, picking that option meant she effectively handed her money over to the FBI and gave it carte blanche to decide whether to return any of it.

Two years later, Linda’s money is still trapped in what is known as administrative forfeiture. Other than some form responses, Linda hasn’t heard from anyone at the FBI about whether or when she might be able to get her money back.

Frustrated at the silence and angry about being subjected to this Kafkaesque nightmare, Linda recently stood in front of FBI headquarters in Washington to announce a nationwide class-action lawsuit with the Institute for Justice. The suit asks the court to require the FBI to either tell Linda what it thinks she did wrong or return her property. Standing up for others, Linda’s lawsuit asks the court to do the same for everyone who received notices like Linda’s.

Did FBI Mislead the Judge to Obtain a Warrant?

Linda is far from the first customer of US Private Vault to sue the government. The search warrant the FBI acquired to raid US Private Vaults only said the company was suspected of crimes, not individual customers. And the warrant said the FBI was only permitted to open individual boxes in order to figure out how to reach owners.

The warrant application failed to include the permanent seizure of the property. Attorneys now say the warrant was a generic search for evidence of a crime all because the business owner was charged with money laundering. As mentioned already, the government also claimed the company allowed drug dealers to store drugs and guns and helped drug dealers launder their money. The indictment against the company held three counts of conspiracy: to launder money, distribute narcotics, and structure cash transactions to evade detection. The FBI's theory was that hundreds of unknown boxes could be tied to unknown crimes.

Instead, acting on a plan it didn’t tell the judge about, the FBI opened every box and attempted to forfeit every box that contained more than $5,000 in valuables. With hundreds of boxes filled with cash, precious metals, jewelry and even poker chips in its hands, the total windfall for the FBI could come to more than $100 million.

Should Linda win her suit, it would force federal law enforcement to fix forfeiture notices that a federal judge called “anemic.” The “copy-and-paste” notice Linda received looks like the others sent to other box renters and thousands of others across the country. That notice indirectly refers to hundreds of federal crimes, including trading with North Korea and copyright infringement.

But Linda’s suit would not fix all the problems with a federal forfeiture system that flips American justice on its head. No one should have to prove their innocence to keep their property.

Congress Files Action to Prevent Government Abuse of Federal Forfeitures

A few weeks ago, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) reintroduced the FAIR Act (H.R. 1525), legislation that aims to curb the worst abuses of federal forfeiture. A number of the act’s reforms could have prevented Linda from having her savings taken.

First, it would end administrative forfeiture. Law enforcement bureaucrats should not be the prosecutor, judge and jury deciding whether to keep Americans’ property. If the government is going to take property, a neutral judge should weigh the evidence to support such an award. Property owners would also be provided with an attorney.

Federal Government has seized billions and the Department of Justice(DOJ) maintain the funds.

Second, the legislation would end the profit incentive for federal law enforcement to forfeit property by sending proceeds to the general Treasury fund. Forfeitures are a huge moneymaker for law enforcement. In just the five years from 2017 through 2021, Department of Justice agencies forfeited more than $8 billion. The FBI forfeited over $1.19 billion during that same time period. And that money goes into an account that DOJ controls itself, without input from Congress.

Linda is seeking justice, not just for herself but for many others. There is no reason why Americans shouldn’t have the same rights afforded to them whether they are fighting for their property or defending themselves from criminal charges.

He said that in these types of forfeitures, law enforcement only needs probable cause that property is somehow connected to a crime in order to seize it. 

"Linda's case is a very good example of how that standard in real life is somewhat meaningless," he said. 

The FBI applied for a seizure warrant against U.S. Private Vaults in March 2021, but both the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office said in the application that agents would merely "inventory" box renters’ property and that the warrant would "authorize the seizure of the nests of the boxes themselves, not their contents," according to Institute for Justice's review of the court documents.

Previous Content Published by Fox News, Forbes, FBI Press Release and L.A. Times contributed to this story.

Newsbreak Reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at newsbreakmedia@mail,com

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I am a freelance news reporter, investigative journalist, true crime writer and historical researcher. I write about community news, crime, business, real estate, human interest, entertainment & politics. Expect to get the stories that matters most.

Houston, TX

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