In recent days, the FBI raided a business in Beverly Hills that rented out private safety deposit boxes under the pretense that owners were allowing 'criminals' to stash their booty.
The business, U.S. Private Vaults, was hit by the feds last month in a raid that has already spawned one lawsuit after agents simply confiscated the property of everyone who had rented a storage box.
When federal agents descended on a Beverly Hills strip mall last month, it took them five days to seize the contents of hundreds of safe deposit boxes inside a store called U.S. Private Vaults.
On Friday, the government revealed why it was so interested in the seemingly mundane business wedged between a nail salon and a spa: It was laundering money for drug dealers and letting them stash guns, fentanyl and stacks of $100 bills in security boxes that were rented anonymously, prosecutors alleged.
An indictment against the company by the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles accuses the firm of deliberately marketing itself to attract criminals by claiming that anyone can store anything outside of the purview of prying government eyes, and do so anonymously. In fact, in order to access their own storage boxes, customers did not need any identification -- they just scanned an eye and their hand to unlock the door.
"We don't even want to know your name," the business advertised, prosecutors said.
In addition, prosecutors said that one of the business's owners and some of the employees were engaged in drug sales and trafficking at the business location itself, while helping some clients convert their cash into gold, and in amounts that did not attract any attention (apparently that didn't work).
But even before the government announced any charges, a court fight began over the constitutionality of the federal seizure of all content in every one of the safe deposit boxes. Last week, a customer filed suit "claiming that the government overreached by confiscating the belongings in every security box without showing why it suspected each person of committing crimes," the L.A. Times reported.
FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the establishment on March 22, confiscating all boxes and property within. It took several days for agents to go through all of the boxes and move the items to a nearby FBI warehouse, court papers indicated.
The warrant is still under seal -- of course, because we can't have a government that operates with transparency -- allowing prosecutors to argue that the judge who approved the warrant granted the "sweeping seizures," the Times added.
“The government seized the nests of safety deposit boxes because there was overwhelming evidence that USPV was a criminal business that conspired with its criminal clients to distribute drugs, launder money, and structure transactions to avoid currency reporting requirements, among other offenses,” the prosecutors argued in court papers.
Agents reportedly found fentanyl, OxyContin, and huge stacks of $100 bills -- but it's the blanket seizure, the lack of transparency, and an act devoid of justification that is disturbing to civil libertarians, mostly because that is increasingly the way federal law enforcement agencies operate.
That is what the unnamed complainant is asserting, anyway.
Listed as John Doe, the unnamed customer argued in court documents that the search warrant should not have been as overly broad as it was, allowing for the seizure of currency, bullion, and jewelry kept in three of the private vaults because there wasn't any probable cause to suspect that person of committing any crime.
“Just as the tenant of each apartment controls that space and therefore has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it, each of the hundreds of renters of safety deposit boxes ... has a separate reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her separately controlled box or boxes,” attorney Benjamin N. Gluck wrote in the complaint.
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