Linda Martin stands accused of no crime. The bureau seized her money anyway.
By guest author Robert Frommer from the Wall Street Journal’s Department of Opinion
The Federal Bureau of Investigation regularly seizes cash, cars and other valuables that belong to people who aren’t accused of any crimes. Months later, many of those people receive a dense, boilerplate notice stating that the FBI plans to keep their property forever, without any explanation of why—a blatantly unconstitutional practice.
That’s what happened to Linda Martin. When the FBI took her life savings from a safe-deposit box during a 2021 raid of US Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, Calif., she assumed her money would be returned. The company’s alleged wrongdoing had nothing to do with her. But several months later, she—and hundreds of other innocent people who had their safe-deposit boxes taken—received a notice stating that the government wanted to forfeit her money.
The notice’s dense legalese pointed to the bureau’s statutory authority for forfeiting her property—including such wide ranging laws as the Tariff Act of 1930, espionage laws and rules against business dealings with North Korea. But it didn’t accuse Ms. Martin of any crime or even lay out why the FBI was trying to take her property.
Confused, Ms. Martin took the first option the notice laid out: filing a petition with the FBI. She later discovered, however, that doing so conceded her property’s forfeitability, leaving it to the bureau to decide if it would give her life savings back as a matter of administrative grace. Almost two years later, her money still sits in a government account with no indication of whether it will be returned.
Sadly, this isn’t unusual. The FBI sends out similarly inscrutable notices whenever it wants to forfeit property, in a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment, which says the government has to provide due process before depriving you of your property. That means saying what it thinks you did wrong, not stringing together legal gibberish.
The FBI has apt incentive to stretch the law to breaking, given that federal agencies keep the proceeds from forfeited property. In the US Private Vaults case, the FBI admitted under oath that even before the raid occurred it had decided to pursue property forfeiture against everything worth over USD 5000 in the renters’ boxes. Using federal forfeiture records, the Institute for Justice calculated that from 2017 to 2021 Justice Department agencies gained more than $8 billion through forfeiture, with the FBI taking in more than $1.19 billion of that bounty.
The courts have already denounced the bureau’s practices. In an earlier lawsuit we brought regarding the US Private Vaults raid, a federal judge declared the FBI’s notices “anemic” and immediately halted forfeiture proceedings for our clients.
Unfortunately, that ruling applied only to the named plaintiffs in that suit. Ms. Martin and hundreds of others didn’t receive the same relief. So Tuesday, she filed a new class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia, seeking to help anyone nationwide who received one of the FBI’s deficient notices.
Courts must demand justice by preventing agencies from forfeiting property without informing owners of what they did wrong. Only then will the Constitution’s demand for due process be satisfied.
Mr. Frommer is a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice. He represents Ms. Martin.