Snitko v. United States: A Shining Light in the 4th Amendment Litigation Void

Snitko v. United States: A Shining Light in the 4th Amendment Litigation Void

On January 23, 2024, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the FBI for its March 2021 raid on US Private Vaults (“USPV”) in Beverly Hills, California. The decision ends the long running drama associated with the FBI’s seizure of hundreds of safety deposit boxes and their contents. More importantly, the decision provides a viable route to redress 4th Amendment violations through civil actions.

The case involves the FBI’s seizure of over 700 safety deposit boxes and the attempted civil forfeiture of each box’s contents. USPV operated a private safety deposit business that did not require customers to provide drivers’ licenses, social security numbers, or even personal contact information to rent a box. Anonymity was the main selling point. In early 2020, the government began investigating USPV for suspected money laundering and other criminal activity. The government’s investigation culminated with a grand jury indictment of USPV and a warrant application to seize the contents of the business and safety deposit boxes. The magistrate judge authorized the raid but only permitted the FBI to open boxes to identify owners and safeguard the contents. Despite this limited authorization, agents rummaged through hundreds of boxes, used drug sniffing dogs on cash inside the boxes, and made copies of personal records. The DOJ then filed administrative forfeiture claims attempting to take more than $100 million in cash and other valuables, all without charging any individual box owner with a crime.

Attorneys at BWO successfully fought one such administrative seizure in May 2021. Other individuals weren’t so lucky and filed a class action lawsuit seeking the return of their box’s contents and the destruction of all information the FBI obtained through the botched raid.

A three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit found the FBI’s actions a clear violation of the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights. The government argued the inventory search doctrine, an exception to the warrant requirement that allows authorities to search items within their lawful custody, allowed the FBI to open each box and search its contents. In a particularly forceful passage, the judges rejected this argument and likened the government’s actions to the types of “limitless searches of an individual’s personal belongings . . .that led to adoption of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.” Prior to the appeal, the government returned all seized inventory to the plaintiffs. However, the FBI placed the information it obtained through the illegal search in a criminal database. The 9th Circuit ordered the government to destroy all database information obtained from this raid.

Section 1983 Lawsuits and “Bivens” Claims

The Snitko plaintiffs were successful, in part, because they sought only equitable relief. They were not seeking money damages. The 11th Amendment provides federal and state governments with immunity from suit. As a result, individuals may only seek money damages for civil rights violations where the government has expressly or impliedly permitted it.

            Lawsuits under Title 28, United States Code, Section 1983 provide a vehicle to sue a state government official in federal court for violations of an individual’s “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.”  1983 lawsuits may only be brought against a state or local official who is acting under color law when they deprive an individual of their civil rights. (See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).) The defendant must use or misuse their power as an official of the state when violating a person’s right to be subject to a 1983 lawsuit. Most often this results in naming individual police officers as defendants for misuse of their authority. However, 1983 cases have been brought against state elected officials to stop unconstitutional laws or against municipal governments to stop local ordinances. Section 1983 by itself does not provide plaintiffs with any rights. Rather, it provides a pathway to sue in federal court over violations of preexisting rights, a far less friendly place to the state and local officials. Section 1983 claims are notoriously difficult to bring because of “qualified immunity”, a doctrine that provides that state officials are only liable when clearly established legal precedent shows their acts acts were unconstitutional.  Deciding whether an action violated the Fourth Amendment requires a fact-intensive inquiry, so it can be challenging to find binding precedent with essentially the same facts.

A Bivens claim, named after the Supreme Court case Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), is similar to a 1983 case in that it involves government officials violating an individual’s rights. However, Bivens claims only involve federal officials. These types of cases are rarer than 1983 claims and it is increasingly difficult to pursue them successfully. Further, Bivens claims are limited to constitutional violations and may not use federal statutes as a basis for recovery.

Courts have eroded Bivens rights methodically in the 50 years since the ruling. Most recently, in 2022, the Supreme Court decided Egbert v. Boule, 596 U.S. 492, which involved an innkeeper near the Canadian border who was stopped and harassed by a border patrol agent looking for illegal crossings. The innkeeper claimed the agent violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights during the encounter. The Supreme Court held the border patrol agent was not subject to a claim for monetary damages because Congress had not explicitly authorized such claims. The ruling further limits the ability to hold federal agents accountable and undercuts a deterrence to misconduct by federal agents. Worse yet, Justice Gorsuch went a step further than the majority and called for Bivens to be overturned.

While it may be difficult to win money from government coffers with a Bivens or Section-1983 case, the Snitko case shows there is still an avenue to pursue equitable relief against the government for violating individual rights. Equitable relief, while not resulting in money for plaintiffs, can reverse an ongoing violation of constitutional rights or make it impossible for the government to use the wrongfully gained information from such a violation. BWO recommends contacting our skilled attorneys if you believe your rights have been violated by a government official or agency.

Tyler Creekmore

Tyler Creekmore is a Senior Counsel with Brown White Osborn. He is a former Public Defender, whose practice now focuses on criminal defense and civil litigation of all types.
Tyler Creekmore