Three merchants that buy secondhand jewelry from customers have sued Suffolk County in federal court, claiming that police detectives habitually seize items for sale on suspicion that they might be stolen, but refuse to tell the store owners if they were stolen or return them if they weren't.
The suit, filed last month, says police have taken about $150,000 worth of gold and jewelry from the three stores since 2010, and about $100,000 of that has never been returned. The stores say that unless police can prove items are stolen, they belong to the stores and should be returned to them.
"They literally just walk in and say they're taking the property," attorney Andrew Campanelli of Merrick said, describing what police do. "They take the property and it's gone."
The plaintiffs in the suit are Jempath Inc., which did business as Cash 4 Gold in Shirley and Massapequa; Carina's Fine Jewelry of Massapequa; and Brickstone Buying Services of Deer Park.
The Suffolk County attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment. A Suffolk police spokesman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Campanelli said precious-metal dealers are highly regulated. They must keep a record of each item they buy from customers, get driver's license information from customers, and upload a description of each item to a police database. Stores must hold onto an item for 21 days before reselling it or melting it down.
If an item is reported stolen, police can check the database and recover the item. But Campanelli said police aren't waiting for that. He said if they see a class ring or a personally engraved item show up in the database, they'll seize it, presumably to ask the original owner if it was stolen.
Police give stores a receipt for whatever they take but have refused to tell them what was stolen and what happened to their property.
"We would never get an answer on what happened to the piece of jewelry" that had been seized, said Catherine Schultz, who owned Jempath with her husband until they closed it in September. "I could never find out what was going on."
When she asked police or Suffolk prosecutors, she said they told her she wasn't a crime victim in a case and had no right to know.
She said if an item had been stolen, she had no problem with it being returned to its rightful owner. But she said she believed some items ended up getting auctioned off by police or used in sting operations — or worse.
"I don't know if it's sitting in someone's pocket," Schultz said. "I just think it's something they don't want to fix."
She said she tried and failed to get answers from police, the district attorney's office and county legislators.
"There's just no recourse" for store owners, she said. "One detective told me, 'That's the cost of doing business.'"