The FBI overstepped its constitutional authority when agents searched hundreds of safe deposit boxes without warrants in 2021, a federal appeals court ruled. The court compared the FBI’s tactics to the kind of indiscriminate searches that led to the enactment of the Bill of Rights in the first place.
In March 2021, the FBI raided U.S. Private Vaults, a safe deposit box company in Beverly Hills, California. The company marketed its services around client anonymity and privacy, which appealed to gambling rings and drug operations, but also customers who were unable to get a deposit box at their bank or simply mistrusted banks and preferred to store their valuables elsewhere.
The FBI seized millions of dollars in cash from the deposit boxes, plus a mix of jewelry, personal effects, and documents such as wills and prenuptial agreements.
In litigation filed in federal district court in May 2021, victims of the raid argued that the FBI’s search “flagrantly” violated their Fourth Amendment rights. In October 2022, the trial judge ruled there was no Fourth Amendment violation.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision on Tuesday. The court ruled that the FBI exceeded the bounds of a warrant obtained prior to the raid, which explicitly did not authorize any “criminal search or seizure” of the boxes’ actual contents.
The FBI’s warrant application omitted key details of the raid plan, including that the special agent in charge had directed agents to open every box, preserve fingerprint evidence, inventory the contents, and have drug dogs sniff all cash.
“If there remained any doubt regarding whether the government conducted a ‘criminal search or seizure,’” the 9th Circuit ruled, “that doubt is put to rest by the fact the government has already used some of the information from inside the boxes to obtain additional warrants to further its investigation and begin new ones.”
At oral argument in December, one of the three judges on the 9th Circuit panel called the FBI’s search of each safe deposit box without probable cause “egregious” and “outrageous.” Another likened the FBI’s actions to the maligned “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” issued in colonial times, which authorized British officials to search colonists’ homes indiscriminately for smuggled tea and other items.
The 9th Circuit’s opinion repeated these concerns. The court found it “particularly troubling” that the government “failed to explain” why its arguments “would not open the door to the kinds of ‘writs of assistance’ the British authorities used prior to the Founding to conduct limitless searches of an individual’s personal belongings.”
“It was those very abuses of power, after all, that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place,” the court ruled.
Five days after being grilled at oral argument, the government tried to make the case go away without a precedent-setting ruling that the FBI’s actions were unconstitutional. Government attorneys filed a motion asking the 9th Circuit to give the plaintiffs what they wanted: an order to destroy records of the FBI’s search.
The government had fought against destruction of the records for more than two years, and plaintiffs’ attorneys were surprised by the about-face, which they called an attempt to “sweep a massive constitutional violation under the rug.”
The government did not, however, concede that the FBI’s raid was flawed. Instead, the government told the 9th Circuit that it wanted “to avoid a published judicial opinion impugning the actions or good faith motivations of law enforcement in this highly unusual case, in which a company was aiding criminality and protecting criminals by operating a vault of anonymous safe-deposit boxes.”
On Tuesday, the 9th Circuit issued the ruling the government feared, while also ordering the FBI to destroy records of the search, including copies in its evidence databases.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California declined to comment on the specifics of the ruling. “We are prepared to destroy records of the inventory search, which is the relief sought by the plaintiffs,” said Thom Mrozek, the office’s director of media relations.
“Today’s opinion draws a line in the sand,” said Rob Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the libertarian nonprofit representing the plaintiffs. “If this had come out the other way, the government could have exported this raid as a model across the country. Now, the government is on notice its actions violated the Fourth Amendment.”