CA9: Wholesale inventory searches of private safe deposit boxes in SW for business was unreasonable

US Private Vaults case reversed. The search of USPV’s 700 safe deposit boxes for inventory was unreasonable. The FBI obtained a warrant for USPV’s business because of its business practices, and this search of the safe deposit boxes of customers was unreasonable. The FBI is instructed to sequester or destroy the records of the searches of all the class members. Snitko v. United States, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 1484 (9th Cir. Jan. 23, 2024). The Syllabus of the court:

In Part II of its analysis, the panel held that the government exceeded the scope of the warrant, which did not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safe deposit boxes. Concurring, Judge M. Smith wrote separately to address plaintiffs’ additional argument that the origins and rationale of the inventory search doctrine makes it inapplicable to safe deposit boxes in a locked vault. Judge M. Smith would hold that given the greater privacy interests and the implications of the rights of third parties, the inventory search doctrine does not extend to searches of the box contents in a locked vault.

Following the seizure of their property, plaintiffs filed suit alleging claims for return of property pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b) and violations of their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. Although plaintiffs’ property was returned, they continued to seek equitable relief requiring the government to return or destroy records of the inventory search. The district court denied plaintiffs’ requested relief, finding that the government’s “inventory” of the safe deposit contents was a constitutionally proper inventory search.

In Part I of its analysis, the panel held that the inventory search doctrine, an exception to the warrant requirement that allows authorities to search items within their lawful custody, did not apply. One of the most important features of the doctrine is the existence of standardized instructions, which limit the discretion of officers and apply consistently across cases. Here, in support of its warrant application, the government, in addition to submitting standardized instructions, also submitted Supplemental Instructions that were designed specifically for the USPV raid. The panel held that the Supplemental Instructions took this case out of the realm of a standardized “inventory” procedure.

The panel reversed the district court’s judgment holding that plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when the FBI “inventoried” 700 safe deposit boxes at US Private Vaults (USPV), and remanded for the FBI to sequester or destroy the records of its inventory search pertaining to the class members. USPV operated a business which rented safe deposit boxes to customers. The government obtained a warrant to search and seize USPV’s facilities, including its safe deposit boxes, as part of its investigation of USPV for various criminal activities. The warrant explicitly did not authorize a criminal search or seizure of box contents, and required agents to follow their written policies to inventory items and contact box owners so that they could claim their property after the search.

Concurring in part, Judge VanDyke joined the majority’s opinion except as to Part II of its analysis, which he viewed as unnecessary given the panel’s resolution of Part I.

Update: LA Times: Appeals court finds FBI did violate rights of some Beverly Hills safe-deposit box holders by Kevin Rector (“The FBI violated people’s constitutional rights when it opened and ‘inventoried’ safe-deposit boxes at a Beverly Hills vault, an appeals court ruled.”)

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