What Is the FBI Trying To Hide About Its Raid on Innocent Americans’ Safe Deposit Boxes?

First, the FBI raided a private business to seize safe deposit boxes and assets belonging to hundreds of people who were not suspected of having committed any crimes.

Now, prosecutors are trying to keep the public in the dark about why the brazen forfeiture effort was undertaken in the first place—and are offering little justification for why such secrecy is necessary.

Four depositions that could be crucial to understanding the motivations and intentions behind the FBI’s March 2021 raid of U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills–based safe deposit box storage business, are being kept confidential at the request of federal prosecutors. Attorneys representing some victims of the raid say the depositions could contain important information about how and why the FBI decided to seize and catalog the private belongings of U.S. Private Vault’s customers. They have asked the federal judge handling the case to allow the transcripts of those depositions—including one interview with Lynn Zellhart, the FBI’s lead agent in the case—to be filed in their entirety.

Unless Judge R. Gary Klausner allows the depositions to be made public, attorneys for the plaintiffs will have to continue heavily redacting their filings in the case. That might be sufficient to address the acute legal issues in the lawsuit, but it obviously harms the general public’s right to be informed about the bigger issues at stake.

(Reason, which has been covering this case since the beginning, plans to file a brief requesting that the depositions be unsealed.)

If the government is successful, it means that the public will have only an incomplete window on what happened here,” Robert Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice who is representing some of U.S. Private Vault’s customers, tells Reason. “That flips the public’s right of access on its head.”

Keep reading

Digital Authoritarianism: AI Surveillance Signals the Death of Privacy

“There are no private lives. This a most important aspect of modern life. One of the biggest transformations we have seen in our society is the diminution of the sphere of the private. We must reasonably now all regard the fact that there are no secrets and nothing is private. Everything is public.” ― Philip K. Dick

Nothing is private.

We teeter on the cusp of a cultural, technological and societal revolution the likes of which have never been seen before.

While the political Left and Right continue to make abortion the face of the debate over the right to privacy in America, the government and its corporate partners, aided by rapidly advancing technology, are reshaping the world into one in which there is no privacy at all.

Nothing that was once private is protected.

We have not even begun to register the fallout from the tsunami bearing down upon us in the form of AI (artificial intelligence) surveillance, and yet it is already re-orienting our world into one in which freedom is almost unrecognizable.

AI surveillance harnesses the power of artificial intelligence and widespread surveillance technology to do what the police state lacks the manpower and resources to do efficiently or effectively: be everywhere, watch everyone and everything, monitor, identify, catalogue, cross-check, cross-reference, and collude.

Everything that was once private is now up for grabs to the right buyer.

Governments and corporations alike have heedlessly adopted AI surveillance technologies without any care or concern for their long-term impact on the rights of the citizenry.

As a special report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns, “A growing number of states are deploying advanced AI surveillance tools to monitor, track, and surveil citizens to accomplish a range of policy objectives—some lawful, others that violate human rights, and many of which fall into a murky middle ground.”

Indeed, with every new AI surveillance technology that is adopted and deployed without any regard for privacy, Fourth Amendment rights and due process, the rights of the citizenry are being marginalized, undermined and eviscerated.

Cue the rise of digital authoritarianism.

Digital authoritarianism, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies cautions, involves the use of information technology to surveil, repress, and manipulate the populace, endangering human rights and civil liberties, and co-opting and corrupting the foundational principles of democratic and open societies, “including freedom of movement, the right to speak freely and express political dissent, and the right to personal privacy, online and off.”

The seeds of digital authoritarianism were planted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with the passage of the USA Patriot Act. A massive 342-page wish list of expanded powers for the FBI and CIA, the Patriot Act justified broader domestic surveillance, the logic being that if government agents knew more about each American, they could distinguish the terrorists from law-abiding citizens.

It sounded the death knell for the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, especially the Fourth Amendment, and normalized the government’s mass surveillance powers.

Keep reading

Americans warned: Police now authorized to track you via cell phone

Police across America now can track citizens through their cell phones – without a warrant – despite the Fourth Amendment’s ban on warrantless searches, according to a team of civil-rights lawyers at the Rutherford Institute.

That’s the result of the U.S. Supreme Court deciding not to intervene in a lower court decision that authorized exactly that.

The institute had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case Hammond v. U.S. that challenged the tracking of people through their cell phones as unconstitutional.

That tracking can tell police a person’s location with great precision, “whether that person is at home, at the library, a political event, a doctor’s office, etc.,” the organization reported.

“Americans are being swept up into a massive digital data dragnet that does not distinguish between those who are innocent of wrongdoing, suspects, or criminals. Cell phones have become de facto snitches, offering up a steady stream of digital location data on users’ movements and travels,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

“Added to that, police are tracking people’s movements by way of license plate toll readers; scouring social media posts; triangulating data from cellphone towers and WiFi signals; layering facial recognition software on top of that; and then cross-referencing footage with public social media posts, all in an effort to identify, track and eventually round us up. This is what it means to live in a suspect society,” he said.

Keep reading

Scooping private data doesn’t violate Fourth Amendment if the owner can still access it, court rules

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals appears to have given the government permission to order anyone’s internet account data copied and held without any cause, whenever they want, without providing any justification, according to University of California, Berkeley School of Law professor Orin Kerr’s analysis of a recent Ninth Circuit briefing that affirmed Carsten Igor Rosenow’s conviction and sentencing for sexually exploiting children in the Philippines.

In his appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Rosenow argued that he had a right to privacy in his digital data and that law enforcement requests to preserve his Yahoo! account data, which were submitted without a warrant after a tip from Yahoo!, violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

But the Ninth Circuit rejected his argument and affirmed his conviction, saying that Yahoo!’s preservation of Rosenow’s records didn’t amount to an unreasonable seizure because the preservation requests didn’t prevent him from accessing his account and Yahoo! didn’t provide the government with access to his data without further legal process:

“A ‘seizure’ of property requires ‘some meaningful interference [by the government,] with an individual’s possessory interests in [his] property.’ Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 113. Here, the preservation requests themselves, which applied only retrospectively, did not meaningfully interfere with Rosenow’s possessory interests in his digital data because they did not prevent Rosenow from accessing his account. Nor did they provide the government with access to any of Rosenow’s digital information without further legal process.”

The court also claimed that Rosenow had already consented to these preservation requests when he accepted Yahoo!’s terms of service:

“It also is worth noting that Rosenow consented to the ESPs [electronic service providers] honoring preservation requests from law enforcement under the ESPs’ terms of use.”

We obtained a copy of the Ninth Circuit’s briefing for you here.

Keep reading

Supreme Court gives victims of malicious prosecutors new weapon

People who are victimized by malicious prosecutions in America’s court systems have been given a new weapon – confirmation that they no longer have to “prove” their innocence by using the court system’s own documentation.

The Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling in Thompson v. Clark has found that individuals have a Fourth Amendment right to hold police accountable for maliciously arresting and charging them without probable cause.

“At a time when the courts routinely shield police from accountability for misconduct, this ruling is at least an encouraging glimmer in the gloom,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

“For too long, Americans have been treated as if they have no rights at all when it comes to encounters with police. This is an overdue reminder that freedom is not secondary to security, and the rights of the citizenry are no less important than the authority of the government,” he said.

Keep reading

Jackboots Policing: No-Knock Raids Rip A Hole In The Fourth Amendment

It’s the middle of the night.

Your neighborhood is in darkness. Your household is asleep.

Suddenly, you’re awakened by a loud noise.

Someone or an army of someones has crashed through your front door.

The intruders are in your home.

Your heart begins racing. Your stomach is tied in knots. The adrenaline is pumping through you.

You’re not just afraid. You’re terrified.

Desperate to protect yourself and your loved ones from whatever threat has invaded your home, you scramble to lay hold of something—anything—that you might use in self-defense. It might be a flashlight, a baseball bat, or that licensed and registered gun you thought you’d never need.

You brace for the confrontation.

Shadowy figures appear at the doorway, screaming orders, threatening violence.

Chaos reigns.

You stand frozen, your hands gripping whatever means of self-defense you could find.

Just that simple act—of standing frozen in fear and self-defense—is enough to spell your doom.

The assailants open fire, sending a hail of bullets in your direction.

You die without ever raising a weapon or firing a gun in self-defense.

In your final moments, you get a good look at your assassins: it’s the police.

Brace yourself, because this hair-raising, heart-pounding, jarring account of a no-knock, no-announce SWAT team raid is what passes for court-sanctioned policing in America today, and it could happen to any one of us.

Nationwide, SWAT teams routinely invade homes, break down doors, kill family pets (they always shoot the dogs first), damage furnishings, terrorize families, and wound or kill those unlucky enough to be present during a raid.

Keep reading

Stephen Breyer’s Retirement Is Good News for the Fourth Amendment

When President Bill Clinton tapped Stephen Breyer to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994, he told the country that Breyer would be a justice who would “strike the right balance between the need for discipline and order, being firm on law enforcement issues but really sticking in there for the Bill of Rights.”

The news of Breyer’s impending retirement at the close of the Supreme Court’s current term gives us an opportunity to weigh Clinton’s words against Breyer’s record. Alas, the former president proved to be only half right. Breyer was certainly “firm” in his deference toward law enforcement. But that same judicial deference often led Breyer to do the opposite of “sticking in there for the Bill of Rights” when major Fourth Amendment cases arrived at SCOTUS.

Take Navarette v. California (2014). At issue was an anonymous and uncorroborated 911 phone call about an allegedly dangerous driver which led the police to make a traffic stop that led to a drug bust. According to the 5–4 majority opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, “the stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated.” Law enforcement won big and Breyer signed on.

The deficiencies of that judgment were spelled out in a forceful dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia. “The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail,” wrote Scalia, who was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. “All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police.” That disturbing scenario, Scalia wrote, “is not my concept, and I am sure it would not be the Framers’, of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures.” Breyer was apparently untroubled by that Fourth Amendment–shredding scenario.

Keep reading

Cops Are Dressing Up Like FedEx Guys and Arresting People for Drugs

A federal court ruled this month that evidence of drugs obtained by police from a package at a FedEx sorting center was not seized unconstitutionally, rejecting the defendant’s arguments that the seizure violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

At the center of the decision is a little-known agreement allowing law enforcement agencies to confiscate parcels at the shipping behemoth’s sorting centers. Police are permitted to take packages only if a drug dog indicates there may be contraband inside. Individual cops, however, determine which packages merit attention, allowing them to zero in on people’s property, dress up as FedEx delivery men, and proceed with arrests if they testify that a drug dog alerted them appropriately.

Keep reading

Court Ruling Strips Apartment Dwellers Of Fourth Amendment Rights – Leaves Hallways Open To Warrantless Police Surveillance & Arrests

Pushing back against a lower court ruling that leaves apartment dwellers vulnerable to warrantless surveillance and arrests, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the hallways outside apartments are protected curtilage which police may not invade without a warrant or a resident’s consent. In an amicus brief filed in Sorenson v. Massachusetts, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that just as the “curtilage” of detached homes are off-limits to police without a warrant, areas immediately adjacent to an apartment should also be considered protected curtilage under the Fourth Amendment.

Affiliate attorneys David J. Feder, Nathaniel P. Garrett, and Jeremy R. Kauffman of Jones Day in California assisted in advancing the arguments in the Sorenson brief.

“As James Otis recognized, ‘A man’s house is his castle.’ Whether that castle takes the form of an apartment, a humble hut, or a mansion is not the issue,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Privacy should not depend on your home’s square footage. The Fourth Amendment forcefield that protects against warrantless government invasions and surveillance does not discriminate.”

Keep reading

Pasco County Cops Harassed Them and Searched Their Homes Without Warrants. A Judge Says They Can Sue.

It’s not every day you receive a letter from the local police department congratulating you on your acceptance into an exclusive program. Such is the story shared by several residents in Pasco County, Florida, a community in the Tampa area. One problem: None of the recipients applied.

“We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to participate in a Prolific Offender Program,” reads a letter from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). “Research indicates that barriers to successful living may involve struggles with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, finding a job, or several other challenges many people face on a daily basis. It is possible you have struggled with some of these issues. If so, please know the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is committed to support you in overcoming these challenges through this program.”

The “support” it offers, originally detailed in an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, includes sending cadres of cops to people’s homes, where officers show up unannounced, harassing them and their family members, performing warrantless searches on their homes, and trying to nab them on petty offenses, like having grass that is too tall. The lucky winners were “selected as a result of an evaluation of your recent criminal behavior,” according to the PCSO, “using an unbiased, evidence-based risk assessment designed to identify prolific offenders in our community.”

In other words, the program is ostensibly trying to keep people out of trouble and deter future criminal behavior before anything goes dramatically awry. That sounds well-intentioned on the surface. But its “relentless pursuit” of community members has ruthlessly entangled people with the state—including targets’ family and friends—trampling over their Fourth Amendment rights in the process, says a recent lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.

Their clients received good news this week: Though the PCSO sought to have the suit dismissed on a litany of different grounds, a federal judge struck each down in a ruling issued on Wednesday, allowing the claim to proceed.

“The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be safe and secure in your person and property,” says Ari Bargil, an attorney on the suit. “This program violates that right,” he notes, “because it allows and requires Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies to approach people at their home, harass them, refuse to leave, and in some instances demand entry without a warrant. These are obvious and clear Fourth Amendment violations.”

Sheriff Chris Nocco, the brains behind the program, openly admitted that it’s intended to do more than what the congratulatory letter implies: He hopes it will “take them out” of the community, he said, with one of his former employees conceding that their job was to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

Keep reading