Local

Does the Constitution protect against theft when police lawfully seize cash and coins?

Derik Kumagai, left, seen in this 2008 file photo, was one of the Fresno police officers who seized money from two businessmen during a 2013 gambling investigation. The businessmen alleged in federal court that police stole thousands of dollars and rare coins seized in the investigation. Kumagai later pleaded guilty to bribery in an unrelated case.
Derik Kumagai, left, seen in this 2008 file photo, was one of the Fresno police officers who seized money from two businessmen during a 2013 gambling investigation. The businessmen alleged in federal court that police stole thousands of dollars and rare coins seized in the investigation. Kumagai later pleaded guilty to bribery in an unrelated case. Fresno Bee File Photo

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a civil rights lawsuit by two businessmen who claim Fresno police officers stole thousands of dollars after confiscating cash and rare coins during a 2013 gambling investigation.

Judge Dale Drozd said Fresno police had a valid search warrant, and that even if officers did steal some of the confiscated money, it’s not clear that the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures “protects against the subsequent theft of lawfully seized items.”

Micah Jessop and Brittan Ashjian filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno in February 2015, contending former vice detective Derik Kumagai, officer Tomas Cantu and Sgt. Curt Chastain stole rare coins and cash from them. Kumagai was later arrested for bribery in an unrelated case.

The businessmen contended in court papers that on Sept. 10, 2013, police seized $131,380 from their automated teller machine business and also stole tens of thousands of dollars in old U.S. currency and rare coins. Police, however, said only $50,000 was seized as evidence from the two men’s homes and their business, court records say.

Fresno police raided Micah Jessop’s and Brittan Ashjian’s homes and business on Sept. 10, 2013 as part of an investigation into the sale of illegal coin-operated gambling devices.

Jessop and Ashjian made their claim of stolen money to city officials before Kumagai was arrested in March 2014 on a federal charge of taking a $20,000 bribe from a drug dealer, their lawyer said. In May 2015, Kumagai was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to taking the bribe.

On Tuesday, Drozd dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that police had a valid warrant to search Jessop’s and Ashjian’s home and business and to seized evidence.

Though the plaintiffs contend the stolen cash and rare coins exceeded the scope of the search warrant, Drozd said Jessop and Ashjian offered no evidence to back up their claims.

In his 24-page ruling, Drozd noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has not offered any guidance as to whether the Fourth Amendment extends to a later theft of seized items. In addition, Drozd said, “the circuit courts that have addressed this issue appear to be divided.”

Court records say Kumagai had a warrant to search the two businessmen’s homes and their business as part of an investigation into the operation of illegal coin-operated gambling devices.

Judge Dale Drozd ruled that police had a valid warrant to search the homes and business and to seized evidence.

Fresno attorney Kevin Little, who represents the two businessmen, could not be reached to comment Tuesday. But in an interview when the lawsuit was filed, Little said Jessop and Ashjian met with a representative of the Fresno city attorney’s office and members of the police department in late September or early October 2013 to complain about money and rare coins being stolen from them.

Court records say police did find illegal gaming machines, but no criminal charges were ever filed against the two men, Little said. He said his clients forfeited the $50,000 booked into evidence as part of a negotiated agreement. In filing the federal lawsuit, Little said, his clients were seeking to recover the money that was allegedly stolen from them by police.

About the same time Jessop and Ashjian were being raided by Kumagai and other officers, Kumagai was himself under investigation.

Court documents say in the fall of 2013, Kumagai met with a drug dealer and told him he was part of a federal investigation into growing and exporting marijuana. He then told the dealer they could close the investigation if he paid a bribe.

On Nov. 6, 2013, Kumagai accepted the bribe, court documents say. Months later, he was under arrest.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

  Comments