Is the FBI descending into a smash-and-grab gang?

The FBI has been under an unfavorable spotlight over its politicized activity under color of law enforcement -- from colluding with Facebook to draconian raids on political operatives in the party out of power, to excessive force on disfavored activists.

But a case out in Los Angeles suggests there's more than just a political ethics problem -- there seems to be a straight ethics problem, a downright crime problem, and the shocking thing is that nobody seems afraid of going to jail for it.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The privacy invasion was vast when FBI agents drilled and pried their way into 1,400 safe-deposit boxes at the U.S. Private Vaults store in Beverly Hills.

They rummaged through personal belongings of a jazz saxophone player, an interior designer, a retired doctor, a flooring contractor, two Century City lawyers and hundreds of others.

Agents took photos and videos of pay stubs, password lists, credit cards, a prenuptial agreement, immigration and vaccination records, bank statements, heirlooms and a will, court records show. In one box, agents found cremated human remains.

Eighteen months later, newly unsealed court documents show that the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles got their warrant for that raid by misleading the judge who approved it.

They omitted from their warrant request a central part of the FBI's plan: Permanent confiscation of everything inside every box containing at least $5,000 in cash or goods, a senior FBI agent recently testified.

The FBI’s justification for the dragnet forfeiture was its presumption that hundreds of unknown box holders were all storing assets somehow tied to unknown crimes, court records show.


The Times reports that they managed to take a $86 million haul from that raid, and there was no evidence most of the people who rented those boxes had committed any crime at all. There was just flimsy suspicion about out-of-state license plates arriving at the locale with no bothering to investigate let alone produce proof to support the hypothesis.

Apparently, they did catch some bad guys based on actual investigation, but someone at the bureau got bigger ambitions than merely busting the bad guys -- they wanted the whole establishment and all the contents of every safe deposit box.

After a two-year investigation that opened in 2019, leaders of the FBI’s Los Angeles office believed U.S. Private Vaults was a magnet for criminals hiding illicit proceeds in their boxes.

The business was charged with conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money.

The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office denied that they misled the judge or ignored his conditions, saying they had no obligation to tell him of the plan for indiscriminate confiscations on the blanket assumption that every customer was hiding crime-tainted assets.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the warrants were lawfully executed “based on allegations of widespread criminal wrongdoing.”

Well, it turns out it wasn't "widespread" and now the safe deposit box holders are suing the agency in a class action lawsuit, given that the bureau actually intended to keep all the contents of everyone's safe deposit box whether they had committed a crime or not.

[FBI agent Lynne] Zellhart was tasked with spelling out the government's case in an affidavit that took her more than six months to write. Prosecutors submitted it to Kim in a request for six warrants.

Five of them were for straightforward searches of the store and the homes of its owners and managers to gather evidence for prosecution of the company.

But the sixth — to seize the store’s business equipment for forfeiture — was highly unusual. The government wanted to take not just computers, money counters, video cameras and iris scanners, but also the "nests of safety deposit boxes and keys."

The only way the FBI could seize the racks of boxes would be to take possession of the contents too. Any judge reviewing the warrant request would recognize a threat to the rights of what turned out to be about 700 customers who had locked away some of their most private and valuable belongings.

Box holders would liken the raid to police barging into a building's 700 apartments and taking every tenant's possessions when they have evidence of wrongdoing by nobody but the landlord.

Wow. Imagine if you were one of those safe deposit box holders facing the taking of your papers, cash or valuables, without having done a thing unlawful -- and knew that it was done by misleading the judge, who would have been unlikely to approve the warrant on knowledge that the whole establishment was going to be seized, including everyone's valuables, with no evidence of any crime committed.

Since I used to live a few blocks down the street from that establishment that got raided, I thought it was a strange case when it first was announced. I knew where the place was and passed it by every day on the way to Starbucks, the one where I'd seen Cameron Diaz and Anne Hathaway get their java or breakfast and I could discreetly check out their cars in the parking lot. At the time the raid happened, I could only think: How little we know about the nefarious activities of our neighborhood! 

Of course, that wasn't the story based on the information now coming out. The little neighborhood safe-deposit vault in a strip mall on the less-expensive flatlands side of Beverly Hills, near the houses with circle driveways instead of high walls and guards, apparently wasn't a nesting haven for criminals, as the FBI told the judge, but ... just a neighborhood place where the wealthier-than-most residents stored their stuff for safety.

The only thing vivid here was that they wanted all of it. They were going to take and keep $86 million worth of people's stuff and what they were going to do with it was anyone's guess. What on earth did they want with people's stuff, and why didn't they keep their warrant request narrowly targeted to the investigation they had done? It sounds like the sort of heist a smash-and-grab gang might do, except that these are smarter people acting under the color of law, and effectively corrupting it.

The obvious thing here is that if these guys misled the judge, they've got to go to jail for it. They've got to be afraid of misleading a judge and if anything, overcompensate to the judge about their intentions in order to cover their keisters.

There's no such fear of that in this falling-apart case, and that's problematic, probably of a piece with the politicization of the bureau elsewhere. It's like there is some kind of institutional corruption shot through in that agency now that they are grabbing innocent people's stuff.

It suggests a bureau that's under tremendous pressure to "produce" for the bosses regardless of the facts establishments, or else a bureau that uses for that $86 million that it doesn't want to talk about openly, which is downright gangsterly.

Whatever it is, there needs to be some kind of righting of course as this lawsuit proceeds. Someone's got to pay for these thug ethics and reform the agency that has clearly gotten out of control on multiple fronts.

Image: Google maps // Google license, fair use

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