FBI Must Purge Records of Searches of Safe Deposit Boxes
Opinion Says Klausner Abused Discretion in Finding No Fourth Amendment Violations
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday instructed the District Court of the Central District of California to order the FBI to destroy records relating to an inventory search of the contents of safe deposit boxes at a private facility and to remove images of documents from its computer system, holding that Fourth Amendment rights of the box-holders were violated.
Judge Milan D. Smith wrote the opinion, declaring in Part I that the inventory search doctrine did not excuse the search of individual boxes without a warrant, and in Part II, finding that the government exceeded the scope of the warrant for a search of the premises of US Private Vaults (“USPV”). Senior Judge Carlos T. Bea joined in the opinion; Judge Lawrence Vandyke partially concurred, saying that Part II was “unnecessary given the panel’s resolution of Part I.”
An indictment charged USPV with a money-laundering conspiracy as well as a conspiracy in connection with drugs and criminal financial transactions. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim authorized the search of USPV’s premises, but included in the warrant a caveat: “This warrant does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes. In seizing the nests of safety deposit boxes, agents shall follow their written inventory policies to protect their agencies and the contents of the boxes.”
District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner Jr. ruled in favor of the government. In his opinion reversing that decision, Smith wrote:
The warrant in this case ‘d[id] not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety [sic] deposit boxes.’ The district court never analyzed what this prohibition in the warrant meant. But it did, by all accounts, find that the search at USPV constituted a ‘’criminal search or seizure’ of box contents….”
He drew the conclusion that “[b]ecause the district court’s own findings show that the FBI conducted a ‘criminal search and seizure of box contents,’ it abused its discretion in holding that the government did not exceed the scope of the warrant’s terms.”
Smith added that “the district court abused its discretion in holding that the government did not exceed the bounds of the warrant in this case because it clearly erred in finding that the government was incapable of following its own standardized instructions.”
“The FBI’s standardized policy tells agents that, ‘where feasible.’ they should obtain a warrant for property that may be subject to an inventory search. Here, the anonymous nature of the boxes prevented the Government from determining who owned a specific box or what was inside, and thus prevented them from describing with particularity ‘both the place to be searched and the...things to be seized.’ ”
That, Smith said, was “clearly erroneous.”
In its affidavit in support of the search warrant, the government indicated that it would look in boxes for contact information, he noted, and pointed out that contact information was, in fact, found in some boxes.
With respect to the inventory search doctrine, an exception to the warrant requirement, the doctrine is inapplicable where, as in the present case, there are customized instructions, in addition to standardized ones, given to those conducting the search.
The opinion comes in a class action. Initially, the plaintiffs sought a return of their property which the FBI had withheld from them but, after the property was, for the most part returned, they sought further relief in the form of the destruction of the records.
The affidavit alleged that “it would be irrational for non-criminal customers to choose USPV.” On its website, it proclaimed:
“Our business is one of very few where we don’t even want to know your name. For your privacy and the security of your assets in our vault, the less we know the better.”
It added that it “would only cooperate with the government under court order.”
Smith observed that “it turned out that a number of non-criminals were customers at the facility.” The named plaintiff, Paul Snitko, and his wife used USPV because their had a waiting list for boxes, they resided in a wildfire prone area, and needed a safe place for documents and valuables.
The case is Snitko v. U.S., 22-56050.
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