Recently unsealed court documents appear to show that the FBI misled a U.S. magistrate judge in its request for a warrant to seize assets from a privately owned safe deposit box store in Beverly Hills, California.
The FBI began investigating U.S. Private Vaults—a store housing more than 1,000 private safe-deposit boxes—after its agents and local law enforcement observed suspected drug dealers and buyers in the vicinity. On March 22, 2021, FBI raided the vault, armed with a warrant by U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim, which granted them the right to seize properties belonging to the firm as part of the investigation, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
The agency seized $86 million worth of cash, gold, silver, expensive jewelry, and other assets.
Pages 84 and 85 of the government’s affidavit requesting multiple warrants contained an assurance that the federal agency would respect the rights of safety deposit box customers.
Written by Andrew Brown, an assistant U.S. attorney and driving force of the investigation, that section of the affidavit makes it clear that warrants only authorize “seizure of the nests of the boxes themselves, not their contents,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
However, by the time Kim got the warrant request, the FBI had allegedly made preparations to seize the contents inside the deposit boxes.
In the summer of 2020, Matthew Moon, a high-ranking FBI agent from Los Angeles, asked Jessie Murray, chief of the FBI’s asset forfeiture unit in Los Angeles, whether Murray’s team was “capable of handling a possible large-scale seizure” of safety deposit boxes of U.S. Private Vault, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Murray said yes. In late 2020 and early 2021, Murray joined a conference call to plan the seizure operation. A memo was issued by FBI agent Lynne Zellhart to fellow agents describing the procedures for carrying out the raid.
The memo, which was approved by Moon, asked agents to assign ID numbers to “all cash” found inside the deposit boxes to be catalogued in the Consolidated Asset Tracking System, which the agency uses to organize forfeitures.