Who do you call when the cops turn into robbers? That’s what married couple Jeni Verdon-Pearsons and Michael Storc are asking themselves now that the government is trying to forfeit their life savings and over $100 million of property in one of the most brazen thefts in American history.
Jeni and Michael live in Marina del Ray, California. The two didn’t want to tie up all their money in ultra-expensive real estate, so they decided to buy a few hundred dollars of silver whenever they had some extra cash. Over time, those small purchases added up, and Jeni and Michael decided to store their nest egg somewhere secure.
They found that security at a California business called U.S. Private Vaults. Jeni and Michael checked out the company’s Beverly Hills facility and found it both convenient and professional. In 2017, they rented a box to store their silver, joining hundreds of other renters who similarly entrusted the company with their cash, jewelry, and other precious belongings.
But now, the federal government is trying to steal Jeni and Michael’s future. After indicting U.S. Private Vaults, the government seized the relatively worthless nest of security boxes that held Jeni and Michael’s silver. When applying for the nest’s seizure warrant, it promised the court that it would not conduct a criminal search of any of the boxes and that its only desire was to reunite people with their property.
Simply put: The government lied. The warrant expressly instructed that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes.” But FBI agents did just that. They marched into U.S. Private Vaults and immediately broke into each of the boxes. Agents quickly found contact information taped onto the top of many of the interior sleeves containing peoples’ property but continued to dig through their valuables. The FBI ran any cash they came across by drug-sniffing dogs, tore open the owners’ sealed envelopes, and made copies of any documents they found. They behaved as if the limits of the warrant and their promises to the court meant nothing.
Jeni and Michael were left shellshocked. They have done nothing wrong, yet they are at risk of losing their nest egg. They expected the government to keep its word and quickly return their silver to them. But in late May, the government filed paperwork seeking to permanently take Jeni and Michael’s silver using civil forfeiture. Should the federal government succeed, that silver would be sold and the proceeds deposited into a fund that can be tapped by the very law enforcement agency seizing and forfeiting what doesn’t rightfully belong to the government.
Jeni and Michael didn’t do anything to deserve such punishment. Nor does the government allege any particular wrongdoing. Instead, its paperwork shows that it is trying to forfeit hundreds of safe deposit boxes that contained significant amounts of cash or other valuables.
The amount of money at stake—over $100 million by some estimates—beggars belief. And if the government gets away with its brazen strongarm tactics here, no one will be safe. Avaricious agents will view other safe deposit box companies, rental storage units, even apartments as potential sources of revenue. They will bend or break the law to get at what’s inside. Left unchecked, expect what’s happened to Jeni and Michael to soon spread across the nation.
The profit incentive that underlies civil forfeiture has a predictable outcome: It turns cops into robbers. The government concocted a scheme to steal people’s property. It lied to a federal judge to get at the contents of that property. It is breaking federal law by trying to forfeit that property without any demonstrable basis of wrongdoing. Its behavior is more reprehensible than a common thief. When people asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” But at least Willie Sutton didn’t pretend to be publicly minded while he tried to separate banks from their depositors’ funds.
Everyone has the right to contract for a private, secure place to store their property. But no place can be secure if the government gets away with what it did here. That’s why Jeni and Michael have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to demand that the federal government return the property of everyone who has come forward to claim their property from the FBI.
For Jeni and Michael, reuniting U.S. Private Vaults’ renters with their property isn’t just about saving their retirement. It’s about ensuring that the government acts within the limits of its powers, and that starts with respecting our property rights.
• Rob Frommer and Rob Johnson are senior attorneys with the Institute for Justice.