Ten stores and pawn shops that deal in second-hand jewelry have sued Suffolk County in federal court, claiming police routinely seize merchandise on suspicion the items might be stolen, but don't return them and harass store owners who try to get the items back.
It's the second such suit filed against the county this year, and this one seeks class-action status on behalf of all 205 such stores in the county.
"You may literally be talking about millions of dollars worth of goods that are gone" after being seized by police, said attorney Andrew Campanelli of Merrick, who filed both lawsuits. "These detectives, they answer to no one."
The suit seeks more than $30 million in damages.
Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown said his office had not yet been served with the suit, so he could not comment on it.
Campanelli said his clients were reluctant to speak publicly about the situation because they fear further harassment by the police.
County law requires precious metals dealers to register anything they buy, which is then entered into a database controlled by the police department. Police can use that database to look for items that have been reported stolen or might play a role in some other criminal case.
The suit says police officers and detectives go further, using the database to inspect items in stores and take gold, jewelry, gems, watches and other items — seizing them without offering a reason or a search warrant.
"They literally just walk in and take whatever they want," Campanelli said.
In more than 3,000 cases, according to the suit, the property that was seized "has simply disappeared," thanks to poor recordkeeping.
The suit also says detectives have gone about the process backwards. Instead of seizing property they believe to be stolen, the suit says detectives first seize property and then try to figure out if it was stolen. That's a violation of a store's right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure, the suit says.
When store owners object to the seizures, the suit says detectives retaliate against them. Some then have their records audited and are cited for improprer technical violations that result in tens of thousands of dollars in fines, the suit says.
Officers and detectives resorted to other types of intimidation, the suit says.
"They would park their police car near the …business, and then proceed to tailgate and pull over customers as they left the ... stores," the suit says. "They would park their marked police car right in front of the store and/or would simply stay in front of the store for prolonged periods in an effort to drive potential customers away."
Sometimes detectives would curse out store owners and tell them to "get the [expletive] out of the county," the suit says. In another case, a detective told a store owner that the lost jewelry seized by police was "a cost of doing business," the suit says.
Later, when store owners ask the police to return seized property or at least tell them if it was given to crime victims, the suit says police have told store owners they have no right to the property or to information about it because they are not crime victims.