The FBI Took Her Life Savings But Won’t Say What She Did Wrong

The FBI seized Linda Martin’s $40,200. It didn’t charge her with a crime, and the notice the FBI sent her did not say why it was trying to keep her money forever. Yet Linda’s savings have been in the government’s hands for nearly two years. What started as a simple decision to save for a home has now become a nationwide class action lawsuit.

Linda Martin lives in the expensive Los Angeles real-estate market. When Linda began to save for a down payment, she wanted to rent a safe deposit box because, in Linda’s own words, she is “a shopper.” Linda knew that if she could use her ATM card to spend that money, there would be a chance she would use it on something she wanted but didn’t really need. So she decided to put the cash in cold storage.

However, Linda’s bank didn’t have boxes available to rent. A Google search led her to a company in Beverly Hills, US Private Vaults. She checked out the location, liked that it had modern security measures like a retina scanner, and that it was open 24 hours. That made her savings accessible any time when she really needed it, but also a 30-minute drive from her home, far enough away that she wouldn’t be tempted.

But Linda’s plans came crashing down in March 2021, when she and her husband saw on the evening news that US Private Vaults had been raided by the FBI. Knowing that her money wasn’t criminal gains, Linda thought the FBI would quickly sort out its mistake and return her savings.

Instead, a couple months later Linda received a notice in the mail. It turned out that the FBI was trying to take her savings forever through a process known as civil forfeiture. But the notice didn’t say why the FBI was trying to do that. Instead, it was packed with dense legalese.

Still thinking this was just an innocent misunderstanding, Linda struggled to respond, ultimately choosing to file a “petition for remission.” Unbeknownst to Linda, picking that option meant she effectively handed her money over to the FBI and gave it carte blanche to decide whether to return any of it.

Two years later, Linda’s money is still trapped in what is known as administrative forfeiture. Other than some form responses, Linda hasn’t heard from anyone at the FBI about whether or when she might be able to get her money back.

Frustrated at the silence and angry about being subjected to this Kafkaesque nightmare, Linda recently stood in front of FBI headquarters in Washington to announce a nationwide class-action lawsuit with the Institute for Justice. The suit asks the court to require the FBI to either tell Linda what it thinks she did wrong or return her property. Standing up for others, Linda’s lawsuit asks the court to do the same for everyone who received notices like Linda’s.

Linda is far from the first customer of US Private Vault to sue the government. The search warrant the FBI acquired to raid US Private Vaults only said the company was suspected of crimes, not individual customers. And the warrant said the FBI was only permitted to open individual boxes in order to figure out how to reach owners.

Instead, acting on a plan it didn’t tell the judge about, the FBI opened every box and attempted to forfeit every box that contained more than $5,000 in valuables. With hundreds of boxes filled with cash, precious metals, jewelry and even poker chips in its hands, the total windfall for the FBI could come to more than $100 million.

Should Linda win her suit, it would force federal law enforcement to fix forfeiture notices that a federal judge called “anemic.” The “copy-and-paste” notice Linda received looks like the others sent to other box renters and thousands of others across the country. That notice indirectly refers to hundreds of federal crimes, including trading with North Korea and copyright infringement.

But Linda’s suit would not fix all the problems with a federal forfeiture system that flips American justice on its head. No one should have to prove their innocence to keep their property.

Last week, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) reintroduced the FAIR Act (H.R. 1525), legislation that aims to curb the worst abuses of federal forfeiture. A number of the act’s reforms could have prevented Linda from having her savings taken.

First, it would end administrative forfeiture. Law enforcement bureaucrats should not be the prosecutor, judge and jury deciding whether to keep Americans’ property. If the government is going to take property, a neutral judge should weigh the evidence to support such an award. Property owners would also be provided with an attorney.

Second, the legislation would end the profit incentive for federal law enforcement to forfeit property by sending proceeds to the general Treasury fund. Forfeitures are a huge moneymaker for law enforcement. In just the five years from 2017 through 2021, Department of Justice agencies forfeited more than $8 billion. The FBI forfeited over $1.19 billion during that same time period. And that money goes into an account that DOJ controls itself, without input from Congress.

Linda is seeking justice, not just for herself but for many others. There is no reason why Americans shouldn’t have the same rights afforded to them whether they are fighting for their property or defending themselves from criminal charges.