C.D.Cal.: Money seized from safe deposit boxes ordered returned under Rule 41(g); govt offers no justification to keep it

Plaintiffs had money in safe deposit boxes at United States Private Vaults. The government raided the boxes apparently with probable cause and seized the money pending forfeiture, but it offers no justification for the seizure or continuing to keep the money. Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction for return of the property under Rule 41(g) is granted because they show a likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable harm. Snitko v. United States, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140280 (C.D.Cal. July 23, 2021):

What the FBI Notice does not contain is any specific factual or legal justification for the Government’s retention of the $57,000 that Ruiz asserts is his. Nor does the Government offer any justification for its continued retention of the $57,000 other than that “the cash is the subject of the pending in rem administrative forfeiture proceedings.” It has been 123 days and counting since the Government seized Box 7622. Whether the Government’s initial seizure of Box 7622 on March 22, 2021 violated Ruiz’s constitutional rights is a question for another day. Whether the Government is justified in its continued seizure of the cash is the question at the heart of Ruiz’s Motion.

The Court now addresses this question through the frame of the preliminary injunction factors enumerated in Winter. As discussed below, the Court finds that the facts and the law clearly favor Ruiz as to his Fourth Amendment claim

Ruiz Has Demonstrated a Likelihood of Success on the Merits

. . .

Assuming that the Government’s initial seizure of Box 7622 was justified by probable cause and conducted pursuant to a valid warrant, the Government has nonetheless failed to provide any justification for its continued seizure of the property. Why has the Government kept the $57,000 now that Ruiz has come forward and sworn under penalty of perjury that it is his? The Government doesn’t really say. Instead, the Government states that it continues to seize Ruiz’s property because “the cash is the subject of … pending in rem administrative forfeiture proceedings.” This explanation is not a justification. Merely stating that the Government has initiated forfeiture proceedings against the property does not offer any insight into how the Government’s continued retention of the $57,000 complies with the dictates of the Fourth Amendment.

Ruiz Has Demonstrated a Likelihood of Irreparable Harm

“It is will established that the deprivation of constitutional rights ‘unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”‘ Melendres v. Arpaio, 695 F.3d 990, 1002 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373, 96 S. Ct. 2673, 49 L. Ed. 2d 547 (1976)). The Government seized Box 7622 on March 22, 2021 and Ruiz filed a claim with the FBI to retrieve his seized property on April 8, 2021. To date, 106 days after Ruiz asked the FBI for his property back, the Government has neither returned the $57,000 nor provided an adequate justification for the prolonged seizure. Ruiz will therefore likely continue to suffer injury to his Fourth Amendment rights for the foreseeable future if an injunction does not issue.

Equally troubling is the fact that Ruiz “desperately need[s] to have [his] money returned” because he is “currently unemployed, and [] had been living off the funds in [his] USPV box prior to the seizure.” Ruiz testifies that he needs the money because he “cannot pay for food” and is “currently living off canned foods and other provisions that [he] stockpiled at the beginning of the pandemic.” He further testifies that without the $57,000, Ruiz “cannot pay for needed medical care including physical therapy for [his] back and finger.”

Ruiz needs the money to pay for medical care and food. The Government does not challenge this testimony, or even address it. Ruiz has therefore established that without a preliminary injunction requiring the Government to return the property, he is likely to suffer irreparable harm via his inability to pay for food and needed medical treatment for an indeterminate period of time.

Ruiz Has Established that the Balance of Equities Favors Injunctive Relief and an Injunction Would Be in the Public Interest

. . .

See post here.

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