Married couple Jeni Pearsons and Michael Store aren't wealthy.
Pearsons works at a nonprofit theater in Los Angeles, and Store is a transportation coordinator in the film industry. The couple has been saving for retirement for years, buying silver here and there when they could afford it. To keep their property safe, they rented a safe deposit box at U.S. Private Vaults.
They thought everything was above board until news broke earlier this year about a raid at the Beverly Hills business.
The government alleged that the company conspired with customers to sell drugs, launder money, and stash ill-gotten goods.
LA COUNTY ABUSES ASSET FORFEITURE, SEIZING MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF MONEY WITHOUT DUE PROCESS
Armed with a warrant, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents spent five days ripping several hundred safety deposit boxes out of the walls and laying claim to its contents.
Prosecutors argued they were within their rights and that the boxes contained weapons and drugs. They also took jewelry, precious metals, and stacks of money to an undisclosed warehouse. Their final haul was worth around $86 million.
The problem is that federal authorities took the items from people who hadn't been accused of a crime, including Pearsons and Store.
They've been able to keep it because of the country's vague standards of civil forfeiture law, which allows the government to seize property and assets without any actual evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
During the raid, the authorities also seized Joseph Ruiz's life savings.
The unemployed chef, who had a side job selling bongs made from liquor bottles, had stored $57,000 in his safety deposit box.
Prosecutors argued that he couldn't possibly make enough money to have that much saved up and accused him of being an unlicensed marijuana dealer.
He went to court to get his money back and won. The government dropped its case against him after he was able ...