The FBI says the property seized in the Beverly Hills raid was a criminal plunder. Owner says: Where is the evidence?


The unemployed chef went to court to regain his $ 57,000 after the FBI seized Joseph Lewis’s life-savings during a raid on the Beverly Hills safe deposit box business. The judge ordered the government to tell Lewis why he tried to confiscate the money.

It came from drug trafficking, FBI agents replied in court documents.

Lewis’s income was too low for him to have so much money, and his side business selling bons made from bottles suggested he was an unlicensed cannabis dealer, the agent said. Wrote. The FBI also said the dog smelled an unspecified drug in Lewis’ cash.

The FBI was wrong. When Lewis created a record showing that the source of his money was legal, the government withdrew the false accusation and returned his money.

Lewis is one of about 800 people confiscated by the FBI from a safe deposit box rented at a US private vault store on the Olympic Boulevard strip mall.

Federal agents have been suspecting criminals hiding loot there for years, and they claim that’s exactly what they found. The government is trying to confiscate $ 86 million in cash and a stockpile of gems, rare coins and precious metals taken from about half of the box.

However, six months after the attack, the FBI and U.S. law firms in Los Angeles have not provided evidence of criminal misconduct by the majority of box owners trying to store their belongings. ..

About 300 box owners have challenged the attempted confiscation.Submitted by Lewis and 65 others Court allegations It is said that the confiscation operation of drug nets is unconstitutional.

“It was a complete invasion of my privacy,” Lewis said. “They tried to damage the credibility of my personality.”

So far, prosecutors have outlined past criminal convictions or pending accusations against 11 box owners to justify confiscation. However, in some other cases, as court records show, the government’s rationale for claiming that seized money and property are linked to crime is less powerful than it is for Lewis.

US Private Vaults are stored in the Beverly Hills Strip Mall.

US Private Vaults closed its operations at the Beverly Hills strip mall in late March after federal agents seized the contents of the safe deposit box during a five-day search. (Joel Rubin)

Federal agents say the use of rubber bands and other conventional cash storage methods is a sign of drug trafficking and money laundering.

They also cite dogs as warning the scent of drugs on most of their cash, as important evidence. However, the government has said that it is impossible to test which drug came into contact with which bill and how long ago, as all the money seized was deposited in the bank.

Mary Kaburg, a Nevada scientist and expert witness to both prosecutors and defendant lawyers, said: Dog warnings for drug residues in cash “may be valid” and “may be complete two-tiered”.

US Private Vaults Prosecution In February, he was accused of colluding with an unnamed customer to sell drugs, launder money, and build a cash transaction to fend off government detection. No one has been charged.

Since then, the criminal case has been dormant and no lawyer or other representative of a private US vault has appeared in court to enter a plea. A spokesman for the Federal Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles declined to comment on why the case seemed to be stuck.

Michael Singer, a Las Vegas lawyer who has represented the US Private Vault on other issues, refused to comment on the charges against the business, but said he was unaware of the criminal activity by the owner. He also said the government “exceeded its limits” in its search, seizure, and attempts to confiscate customers’ money and property.

In a treatise in response to 15 lawsuits and other allegations in which box owners demand the return of their belongings, prosecutors emphasized that private vaults in the United States allow customers to rent boxes anonymously. He states that he intentionally pitched to a criminal.

A US postal inspector alleged in court documents that the owner of the business, Michael Polyac, had admitted to making money from medical fraud and the sale of illegal marijuana. I couldn’t ask Polyac for comment.

Some boxholder lawyers say the entire government operation is to “grab money” to earn tens of millions of dollars for the Justice Department through confiscation. A U.S. federal prosecutor’s spokesman denied that, saying that some of the money collected would be paid to the victims of the crime.

Civil confiscation does not require a criminal conviction. Governments need to prove that the money or property they are trying to confiscate is likely to be related to criminal activity.

Loose evidence was evident in a confiscation complaint filed Monday against two brothers from Woodland Hills. The government wants to keep $ 960,100 in cash received from one of the vaults and $ 519,000 received from the other vault.

Prosecutors say theft, fraud and money laundering justify confiscation. However, the only evidence in the complaint was that one of his brothers (who didn’t say who) was allegedly “in contact” with a suspected armed robber at a cell phone store.

Their lawyer, Benjamin Gluck, called the complaint “a horrifying and unconstitutional abuse of power.”

Prosecutors also provided little evidence of confiscation of more than $ 900,000 from an unidentified box owner in another confiscation case. They accused him of being “either a top-level drug trafficker or a money launderer.”

The “signs” of these crimes included a way for a person to bundle cash into thick, thin, broken rubber bands. Paper tightly wrapped in tape. Bank band; Plastic CVS ​​and Paper Good Neighbor pharmacy bag.

Using the pseudonym Charles Coe, the box owner has filed a proceeding to challenge his foreclosure of money.

Gluck, who represents Kor, refused to discuss a particular case, but told US private vault customers that “banks have escaped an insecure and oppressive regime and have saved a lot of cash for many years to save their lives. It included many immigrant business owners who had gathered. “

“The idea that old rubber bands have to be drug dealers is ridiculous,” he said.

The only other government evidence against Kor is the drug dog’s warning against his cash.

It is well known in law enforcement that the value of dog warnings diminishes as more states legalize marijuana. National police Started Retirement of drug dog Warn marijuana and train new marijuana to find only cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.

However, Los Angeles Police Department Smithy, who eavesdropped on Kor’s cash, is trained to detect marijuana as well. During his eight-year career as a drug dog, Smithy’s work led to more marijuana attacks than the other three drugs combined, according to a court statement from his handler, Officer Dolores Sviate. I did.

With billions of dollars in cash cycles each day through companies that sell marijuana, experts say they leave a detectable odor on invoices that fall into the hands of people who are neither dealers nor users.

According to the box owner’s lawyer, in the US Private Vault, a large amount of cash from an authorized marijuana company cannot open a bank account in at least two boxes due to federal law prohibiting the sale and possession of drugs. Was included. The safe deposit box was not airtight, so the scent of marijuana could spread between them.

On Friday, the prosecutor filed a complaint to confiscate money from more box owners. In two of the complaints, the government sought confiscation of $ 154,600 in cash from one box holder and $ 330,000 from another. Beyond the dog’s warning, the main evidence is that both failed to apply for a state license to sell marijuana, suggesting that “funds are drug-related,” an assistant. USAttys. Victor Rogers and Maxwellkol wrote.

A spokesman for the U.S. Prosecutor’s Office, Tom Murozek, called the dog warning in cash “strong evidence” of drug crime, but said it was “not the only factor contributing to the possible causes.” ..

“It’s perfectly appropriate to use dogs to identify money contaminated with marijuana,” he said. “In the first place, marijuana is illegal under federal law, but it is also illegal to transport marijuana under California law without a proper license.”

Regarding Lewis, Mr. Murozek said the government had never accused him of crime, but found “a possible cause of believing that the money in his box was related to drug trafficking.” rice field.

In preliminary judgment, Judge R. Garyklausner of the US District Court Prevented government confiscation The proceedings against Lewis and the other three stated that the lack of “specific de facto and legal grounds” violated their rights through due process.

Klausner also said, “Facts and Law. Clearly in favor of LewisIn his claim that the FBI violated protection against unjustified investigation and seizure of the Fourth Amendment.

A masked man with paper stands outside the store

Joseph Lewis, outside the US Private Vault, is stored at a strip mall in West Olympic Boulevard, Beverly Hills. (Alsave / Los Angeles Times)

Approaching a legal skirmish is the possibility that Klausner or another judge will grant a box owner’s request for a ruling that the entire attack on a US private vault is unconstitutional. It would jeopardize the prosecutor’s ability to use evidence seized from the safe deposit box in both confiscation and criminal cases.

In a warrant permitting the search and seizure of all “business equipment” in the U.S. private vault, magistrate judge Stephen Kim imposes strict restrictions on the government and federal agents seek evidence of criminal misconduct. Explicitly prohibited searching the contents of each box.

The warrant application was submitted by Assistant USAtty. Andrew Brown, FBI agent Lynn Zelhart’s statement, states that inspections by investigators in each box “to determine ownership” so that the government can return its belongings after it has taken inventory of the seized property. Will not expand more than necessary, “guaranteed Kim.

The box owner’s lawsuit alleges that those promises were false and that the agent intended from the beginning to search the box for evidence of criminal investigation.

Jane Bambauer, a law professor at the University of Arizona, said using drug dogs to sniff cash in boxes is a violation of Article 4 of the Amendment, under the restrictions Kim imposed on the search. rice field.

“When it came to the common-sense real-world assessment of how this works, what happened was wrong,” said Bambauer. “I think it’s quite clearly wrong in the doctrine terminology of Article 4 of the Amendment to the Constitution.”

A US law firm has denied any illegal activity. “Nothing requires the government to ignore evidence of crime,” Mrozek said while examining the inventory of seized goods.

“The search and seizure of items from US private vaults was approved by a federal judge, and all operations were carried out in accordance with the Constitution and applicable law,” he said.

Robert E. Johnson, a lawyer representing Lewis and six other boxholders in a class action seeking to destroy all records generated by the investigation, said the government’s efforts to “criminalize financial privacy” in the case. Seen as a disturbing sign of.

Johnson, a senior lawyer at the Libertarian Justice Institute in Virginia, said, “Government theory states that having cash would be a presumed criminal, and all Americans need to worry about it. I think there is. “

In the confiscation of Lewis, who died, the FBI provided a court statement with the government’s “possible cause” of believing that his $ 57,000 came from drug trafficking.

The agent checked Lewis’s “holysmokescrafts” email address and found that his side business was making bonbons, concluding that he “may be involved in the cannabis industry in some other way.”

The FBI has checked state records for Lewis’ wage and tax history and has seen income of only $ 18,510 since 2019. This is “less than one-third of the cash in the box”.

According to Zelhart, the FBI’s review of court records did not provide anything to test Lewis’s allegation that his money came from a legal settlement. When Lewis submits a record confirming payment (one injured in a car accident and one chronic violation of housing law in an apartment building), the FBI returns his money under a court order. rice field.

“They pulled a bank robber in the daytime,” Lewis said. “They didn’t even apologize.”

This story was originally Los Angeles Times..