Married couple Jeni Pearsons and Michael Store aren’t wealthy.
Pearsons works at a nonprofit theater in Los Angeles , and Store is a transportation coordinator in the film industry. The couple has been saving for retirement for years, buying silver here and there when they could afford it. To keep their property safe, they rented a safe deposit box at U.S. Private Vaults.
They thought everything was above board until news broke earlier this year about a raid at the Beverly Hills business.
The government alleged that the company conspired with customers to sell drugs, launder money, and stash ill-gotten goods.
Prosecutors argued they were within their rights and that the boxes contained weapons and drugs. They also took jewelry, precious metals, and stacks of money to an undisclosed warehouse. Their final haul was worth around $86 million.
The problem is that federal authorities took the items from people who hadn’t been accused of a crime, including Pearsons and Store.
They’ve been able to keep it because of the country’s vague standards of civil forfeiture law, which allows the government to seize property and assets without any actual evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
During the raid, the authorities also seized Joseph Ruiz’s life savings.
The unemployed chef, who had a side job selling bongs made from liquor bottles, had stored $57,000 in his safety deposit box.
Prosecutors argued that he couldn’t possibly make enough money to have that much saved up and accused him of being an unlicensed marijuana dealer.
He went to court to get his money back and won. The government dropped its case against him after he was able to provide documents that showed the source of his money was legitimate.
“It was a complete violation of my privacy,” Ruiz told the Los Angeles Times. “They tried to discredit my character.”
Ruiz is one of 800 people whose money and property were taken in the March 22 raid. Six months later, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles hasn’t been able to prove criminal wrongdoing by the majority of box holders whose belongings the government is actively trying to keep.
Like Ruiz, 65 others have filed court documents claiming the government grab was unconstitutional.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times shows that the government’s reasons for taking money and property against numerous others were just as flimsy as it was in Ruiz’s case.
Agents claim drug-sniffing dogs alerted them to the scent of narcotics on the seized cash, but multiple analyses of drug-dog alerts have consistently shown high error rates, some hitting past the 50% mark.
“In effect, some of these K-9 units are worse than a coin flip,” Washington Post columnist Radley Balko said in a post about the accuracy of canine searches. He added that “while dogs are indeed capable of sniffing out illicit drugs, we’ve bred into them another overriding train: the desire to please. Even drug dogs with conscientious handlers will read their handlers’ unintentional body language and alert accordingly.”
Federal authorities have also pointed to the use of rubber bands to keep stacks of cash together, as well as other normal ways of storing currency, as tell-tale signs of money laundering and drug trafficking from the U.S. Private Vaults box holders.
The government also said in court documents that it deposited all the seized money in a bank, which experts say would make it impossible to test which drugs may have come in contact with which bills.
And even though U.S. Private Vaults was indicted in February on charges of conspiring with unnamed customers to sell drugs and launder money, no one has been charged.
The criminal case against them hasn’t moved forward, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles isn’t saying why, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Unfortunately for many of the box holders, in civil forfeiture cases, a person is often guilty until proven innocent. No criminal conviction is required, and the government only has to show that it’s more likely than not that the money or property taken was linked to illegal activity.
Civil forfeiture was initially one way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by taking their assets. However, the practice has been widely abused, with victims forced to give up their homes and property and then spent small fortunes trying to get them back.
“Today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting,” the American Civil Liberties Union said. “For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”
For Pearsons and Store, the government’s seizure of their silver is unacceptable, and they have decided to fight back.
They, along with six others, have teamed up with the Institute for Justice for a class-action lawsuit challenging the government’s raid as an illegal search.
“The government’s theory is that having cash makes you a presumptive criminal, and I think every American should be worried about that,” IJ senior attorney Rob Johnson said.