The FBI is facing yet another controversy over what court documents is the theft of the life's savings of 800 random people at the U.S. Private Vaults safety deposit box storage in Beverly Hills .
Federal agents raided U.S. Private Vaults and asserted in court last February that the business was a front for laundered drug money. Six months later, nobody has been charged and the US Attorney prosecuting the case has not provided any updates.
Around $86 million dollars in cash plus large amounts of jewels and precious metals were taken in this safety deposit box raid under the federal government's asset forfeiture program. Court documents in a lawsuit over the seizure have revealed that FBI agents falsely accused most of the people of having obtained their money illegally, which they have since proven to be from legitimate sources.
The only evidence the FBI and federal prosecutors have provided to justify what is for all intents and purposes a robbery and warrantless seizure is that a drug sniffing dog smelled marijuana while walking through the rows of the business. They further allege that a couple of deposit box holders once applied for a legal marijuana license and were rejected. The government is also claiming that the money they took was bundled with rubber bands, which they assert in court is only something criminals do.
One individual has admitted to having obtained the money illegally so far.
While selling marijuana is legal in California, it is still against the law federally. For this reason, many marijuana vendors use safety deposit boxes to store their cash rather than formal banks subject to federal law.
In theory, federal agents with ulterior motives could invoke this legal loophole to steal money from state licensed pot sellers -- a business that generates billions -- but so far, they have provided no credible evidence suggesting most of the U.S. Private Vault customers they took money and valuables from were even in the marijuana business. The owners of U.S. Private Vaults have not been charged either.
To add insult to injury, the Department of Justice and FBI are claiming in court that they have already deposited the money and cannot distinguish between what they claim is criminally obtained money and what are the honest savings of private citizens.
The federal government's Civil Asset Forfeiture program has for decades been criticized for being unconstitutional. Under the system, a person who is not arrested or even convicted -- as is the case in the U.S. Private Vaults debacle -- can have their money and property taken from them simply because a federal agent alleges that it may have been used in a crime.
Lawyers rpresenting victims have suggested that the FBI's real motive for the massive cash grab is likely a pressing need to fund some of its "off the record" operations, which includes its sprawling and growing network of political and criminal informants. The FBI has developed an elaborate financial scheme that pays Confidential Informants out of its asset forfeiture program, which is meant to make the money difficult to trace.