The FBI returned a Los Angeles woman’s life savings — money she was keeping to buy a house — after seizing it two years earlier with no explanation.
Despite never being charged with a crime, the FBI seized Linda Martin’s safe deposit box during a March 2021 raid through administrative forfeiture, a move that enables federal agencies to seize property without judicial involvement. She went years without explanation, but her $40,200 was returned in July after she filed a nationwide class action lawsuit with the Institute for Justice (IJ) in March 2023.
“I’m relieved to finally have my savings back, but it has been a confusing and frustrating process from the moment it was taken,” Martin said in a statement IJ released in July.
“I had to prove my innocence to keep my own money,” she added. “No one should be treated that way and I’m going to keep fighting so that others don’t suffer the same way I did.”
Martin plans to continue pushing her position in federal court to “end of the FBI’s practice of sending unconstitutional forfeiture notices.” IJ hopes that the case will help others in similar situations across the nation.
In the statement, IJ accused the FBI of trying to “hurriedly” return the money “to avoid any accountability.”
Martin’s money was taken during a raid of a Beverly Hills-based safe deposit box company, U.S. Private Vaults, which later shut down and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money. In total, about $86 million in cash and property in 1,400 customers’ safe deposit boxes were taken.
The warrant, according to IJ, told agents not to search or seize individual customer’s boxes.
“They were just supposed to identify owners so they could claim their property,” IJ stated. “But the FBI instead acted on its months-old plan to search and try to forfeit the contents of any box worth more than $5,000.”
An FBI spokesperson previously said the warrants were “lawfully executed based on allegations of widespread criminal wrongdoing.”
Martin did not receive any information about why her money was seized and was only told the matter was pending, according to IJ.
“The FBI had no idea who Linda was, yet it tried to forfeit her life savings simply because her safe-deposit box contained more than $5,000,” IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer said in the statement. “By never forcing the Bureau to say what it thinks someone did wrong, the FBI’s notices enable the sort of corrupt ‘policing for profit’ that caused Linda’s forfeiture nightmare to drag on for over two years.”
After submitting seized property to the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund, federal agencies can receive the funds back to pay for “costs associated with accomplishing the legal forfeiture of the property,” according to the DOJ.
IJ calculated that the FBI received $1.19 billion of $8 billion Justice Department agencies seized through forfeitures between 2017 and 2021.
IJ said the FBI’s forfeiture notices are a violation of the Fifth Amendment which requires “the government to provide specific factual and legal reasons for forfeiture.”
The DOJ’s asset forfeiture policy manual defends the practice, stating its goal is to “punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property used in or acquired through illegal activities.”
“We’re thrilled that Linda can finally get her life back on track,” IJ Attorney Bob Belden said. “But we still have to fight for the many others whose lives have been derailed by the FBI’s forfeiture machine.”