Postal service

Oakland business owner sues Postal Service over seizure of Black Lives Matter face masks

In a federal trialthe owner of an Oakland screen printing business alleges that the United States Postal Service illegally searched a shipment of protective face coverings, delaying their arrival to protesters participating in racial justice marches across the country after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Embossed with Black Lives Matter slogans like “Stop Killing Black People” and “Defund Police”, 2,000 masks headed to Washington, DC; Saint Louis; Brooklyn and Minneapolis — where Floyd died — were seized and searched by Postal Service inspectors for drugs, claimed Movement Ink owner Rene Quiñonez and his attorneys at the nonprofit law firm Institute. for Justice at a press conference on Thursday.

The four boxes of masks were mailed to customers on June 3, 2020 and arrived three days later. But along the way, Quiñonez said he discovered an alert “seized by law enforcement” on the Postal Service’s website when he tried to track the packages.

He and his attorneys say Quiñonez later learned, with the help of Freedom of Information Act requests, that his packages had been inspected by the Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the USPS, delaying their arrival by 24 hours.

“We’ve had volunteer employees, we’ve had other printers who have come to our aid to make sure we can put these masks on the faces of our community to protect them during the raging pandemic,” said Quiñonez. “It was a complete shock when we saw they were seized by law enforcement.”

Filed Wednesday, the lawsuit accuses the Postal Inspection Service of searching his packages without a warrant, probable cause or reasonable suspicion, thereby violating the First and Fourth Amendments protecting free speech and protecting against unlawful search and seizure.

The USPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At Thursday’s press conference outside his store on Mandela Parkway, Quiñonez said he has been a social justice activist for 20 years and has run the screen printing business for 10 years. His company specializes in printing social justice slogans on T-shirts. , toddler onesies and other clothing.

The lawsuit says Movement Ink carved out a niche for itself by building relationships “with activist movements, organizations, nonprofits, and individual organizers, who relied on Rene and Movement Ink for a variety of screen printing needs.”

Quiñonez said the seizure turned him and his business into objects of suspicion and caused him to lose customers at a time when racial justice protests were unfolding in every US city and watchdog agencies civil rights accused the Trump administration of heavy-handed law enforcement and surveillance tactics.

At least three groups who regularly commanded Movement Ink cut ties, the lawsuit says. The Postal Service seizures created “a veil of suspicion, distraction, uncertainty and confusion around Rene and Movement Ink,” according to the lawsuit.

“Government officials should not be allowed to interfere with personal property without having reason to believe it poses a risk to public safety,” said Institute for Justice attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Government officials should not be allowed to interfere with political messages, regardless of their content or the views they express, especially on matters of vital public importance. But all of that happened in this case, and those violations have real consequences.

Two years later, Quiñonez said companies are still trying to get back to where they were.

“Dealing with the consequences and the suspicion of this has been very difficult for me and my family,” he said.

Tsitsuashvili said lawsuits alleging unconstitutional mail seizures are not common. One reason is that the process of learning why seizures occur can be opaque. For example, it took Quiñonez several months and an appeal to obtain documents through the Freedom of Information Act, which was partially redacted.

Shwanika Narayan is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter / Instagram: @shwanika