After the FBI seized Joseph Ruiz’s life savings during a raid on a safe deposit box business in Beverly Hills, the unemployed chef went to court to retrieve his $57,000. A judge ordered the government to tell Ruiz why it was trying to confiscate the money.
It came from drug trafficking, an FBI agent responded in court papers.
Ruiz’s income was too low for him to have that much money, and his side business selling bongs made from liquor bottles suggested he was an unlicensed pot dealer, the agent wrote. The FBI also said a dog had smelled unspecified drugs on Ruiz’s cash.
The FBI was wrong. When Ruiz produced records showing the source of his money was legitimate, the government dropped its false accusation and returned his money.
Ruiz is one of roughly 800 people whose money and valuables the FBI seized from safe deposit boxes they rented at the U.S. Private Vaults store in a strip mall on Olympic Boulevard.
Federal agents had suspected for years that criminals were stashing loot there, and they assert that’s exactly what they found. The government is trying to confiscate $86 million in cash and a stockpile of jewelry, rare coins and precious metals taken from about half of the boxes.
But six months after the raid, the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles have produced no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the vast majority of box holders whose belongings the government is trying to keep.
Some lawyers for box holders say the government’s entire operation is a “money grab” to acquire tens of millions of dollars for the Justice Department through forfeiture. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office denied that and said some of the money it recovers will go to crime victims.
In civil forfeitures, no criminal conviction is required. The government just needs to prove that it’s more likely than not that the money or property it seeks to confiscate was linked to criminal activity.
In warrants authorizing the search and seizure of all “business equipment” at U.S. Private Vaults, U.S. Magistrate Steven Kim placed strict limits on the government, explicitly barring federal agents from searching the contents of each box for evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
In the warrant application, submitted by Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Brown, a statement by FBI agent Lynne Zellhart assured Kim that agents’ inspection of each box would “extend no further than necessary to determine ownership” so that belongings could be returned once the government took an inventory of the property seized.
Box holder lawsuits allege that those promises were false and that agents, with no probable cause, intended from the start to rummage through the boxes looking for evidence in the criminal investigation….
“They pulled a bank heist in broad daylight,” Ruiz said. “They didn’t even apologize.”
Please read it all. The tidbit that most people aren’t aware of is that the whole “civil asset forfeiture” scheme was planned to work this way. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect people, including the accused but not yet convicted, from being expropriated in this fashion. But way back in the Seventies, some bright boy in the DoJ said to his superior, “Wait a minute! We don’t have to treat money and property as innocent until proved guilty! They’re not people so they have no rights!”
What’s that you say? Inanimate objects can’t commit crimes? A mere bagatelle. If governments can create fictional persons (i.e., corporations), they can easily attribute wrongdoing to money and goods. Didn’t you take Straining at Gnats and Swallowing Elephants in law school?
And so the scam was born. The accused get the presumption of innocence, but their funds and possessions don’t. Without their savings, they have less chance of defending themselves successfully, so DAs’ conviction rates skyrocket. The government gets more money to spend, so everyone’s happy. Except the folks who lost their money, their peace of mind, and often as not a big part of their lives, of course.
So the feds can seize everything you own, allege that it was tied to “drugs,” and compel you to prove that you acquired it legally to have even the ghost of a chance of getting a fraction of it back. Of course, the state and municipal governments got in on the caper almost at once. The number of persons who’ve lost their savings this way is far larger than the number who’ve gotten even a piece of them back.
Perhaps the most outrageous case of this was that of California resident Donald Scott:
Early on the morning of October 2, 1992, 31 officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol, California National Guard and National Park Service entered the Scott’s 200-acre (0.81 km2) ranch. They planned to arrest Scott for allegedly running a 4,000-plant marijuana plantation. When deputies broke down the door to Scott’s house, Scott’s wife would later tell reporters, she screamed, “Don’t shoot me. Don’t kill me.” That brought Scott staggering out of the bedroom, blurry-eyed from a cataract operation—holding a .38 caliber Colt snub-nosed revolver over his head. When he emerged at the top of the stairs, holding his gun over his head, the officers told him to lower the gun. As he did, they shot him to death. According to the official report, the gun was pointed at the officers when they shot him.
Later, the lead agent in the case, sheriff’s deputy Gary Spencer, and his partner John Cater posed for photographs smiling arm-in-arm outside Scott’s cabin.
Despite a subsequent search of Scott’s ranch using helicopters, dogs, searchers on foot, and a high-tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory device for detecting trace amounts of sinsemilla, no marijuana—or any other illegal drug—was found.
Scott and his wife, the former Frances Plante, had only been married for two months at the time of the incident. His body was cremated and the ashes were given to his widow. The ashes were later destroyed when the ranch home was burned in a wildfire the following year.
Scott’s widow, along with four of Scott’s children from previous marriages, subsequently filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the county and federal government. The case lasted eight years, requiring the services of 15 attorneys and some 30 volume binders to hold all the court documents. In January 2000, attorneys for Los Angeles County and the federal government agreed to settle with Scott’s heirs and estate for $5 million, even though the sheriff’s department still maintained its deputies had done nothing wrong.
Michael D. Bradbury, the District Attorney of Ventura County, conducted an investigation into the raid and the aftermath, issuing a report on the events leading up to and on October 2, 1992. He concluded that asset forfeiture was a motive for the raid.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issued their own report in response, clearing everyone involved of wrongdoing, while California Attorney General Dan Lungren criticized District Attorney Bradbury. Sheriff Spencer sued D.A. Bradbury for defamation in response to the report. The court ruled in favor of Michael Bradbury and ordered Sheriff Spencer to pay $50,000 in Bradbury’s legal bills.
An elderly man was murdered because the “authorities” coveted his land. Let that sink in for a moment. Have you started thinking of assets you own that the “authorities” might covet?
The day will come when, having expropriated you of all you’ve earned, the feds will charge you a hefty “storage and safekeeping fee” for holding it while you labored to prove that you earned it legally. The KGB used to bill the family of an executed man for the bullet that killed him, didn’t it? So there’s a precedent. Perhaps I shouldn’t have put the idea into pixels. You never know who might be watching.