Ruiz is one of roughly 800 people whose money and valuables the FBI seized from safe deposit boxes they rented at the U.S. Private Vaults store in a strip mall on Olympic Boulevard.
Federal agents had suspected for years that criminals were stashing loot there, and they assert that’s exactly what they found. The government is trying to confiscate $86 million in cash and a stockpile of jewelry, rare coins and precious metals taken from about half of the boxes.
But six months after the raid, the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles have produced no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the vast majority of box holders whose belongings the government is trying to keep.
About 300 of the box holders are contesting the attempted confiscation. Ruiz and 65 others have filed court claims saying the dragnet forfeiture operation is unconstitutional.
“It was a complete violation of my privacy,” Ruiz said. “They tried to discredit my character.”
Prosecutors, so far, have outlined past criminal convictions or pending charges against 11 box holders to justify the forfeitures. But in several other cases, court records show, the government’s rationale for claiming that the money and property it seized was tied to crime is no stronger than it was against Ruiz.
U.S. Private Vaults shut down its business in a Beverly Hills strip mall in late March after federal agents seized the contents of its safety deposit boxes during a five-day search.(Joel Rubin)
Federal agents say the use of rubber bands and other ordinary methods of storing cash were indications of drug trafficking or money laundering.
They also cite dogs’ alerting to the scent of narcotics on most of the cash as key evidence. But the government