LOS ANGELES (CN) - When pawn shop owners told Palm Springs police it was too dangerous for them to continue acting as informants in undercover investigations, police retaliated by arresting one of them and seizing $200,000 they were lawfully using to operate their business, the owners say in Federal Court.
Michael and Mindy Nichols, husband and wife, and Michael's mother Georgia Nichols sued the City of Palm Springs and its police Officers Rae Fernandez, Guillermo Fernandez and Matt Beard on civil rights charges.
The three Nichols, licensed second-hand dealers, owned Palm Springs Finest Jewelry and Collectibles. They say the Springs Police Department asked them to use their business to help recover stolen goods.
Officers asked them to provide information on suspects who tried to sell or pawn stolen goods, weapons and drugs. The Nichols say they helped police investigate sales of stolen jewelry and art, methamphetamine, heroin, firearms and explosives.
In return for "risking their lives and livelihood" by serving as informants in investigations led by Rae and Guillermo Fernandez, the Nichols say, they were promised compensation and protection by the police department.
But the officers abused their positions to take expensive goods from the pawn shop for little or no cost, according to the complaint.
The officers were indifferent to the fact that the Nichols' safety was at risk due to their part in infiltrating criminal street gangs and investigating known drug dealers and other dangerous criminals, they say in the lawsuit.
The Nichols say they were the victims of multiple violent attacks by suspects on whom they had informed. Among other things, their store was fired on during a drive-by shooting after a gang member was arrested and prosecuted for trying to sell a stolen luxury watch to their shop, and they received several threats, including a phone call calling them "snitches, the complaint states.
Michael Nichols was attacked more than once, one time with a hammer and another time with a machete, by gang members or relatives of suspects that the Nichols had informed on, the Nichols say.
Although the Nichols informed the Palm Springs Police Department about these attacks, the officers continued to use them as informants in dangerous undercover operations, they say.
The Nichols say they "were asked to hire suspects so that they could gain information that would be beneficial to defendants' investigations. When defendants ultimately arrested these individuals, it was clear that plaintiffs were working on behalf of defendants, thus exposing them to great danger."
Scared for their lives, the Nichols told the officers that they wanted out of their jobs as informants, but the officers pressured them to continue to assist in criminal investigations, the complaint states.
In July 2012, the Nichols helped the police department to capture a suspect with ties to high-ranking members of a criminal street gang. Officers had the Nichols drive the suspect to them personally so that they could arrest her, the complaint states.
When the Nichols "continued to express their desire to no longer serve as informants, defendants turned on plaintiffs and accused them of buying and selling narcotics and stolen goods. Defendants denied that plaintiffs were informants and spread misinformation about them throughout the community, despite plaintiffs' years of service to defendants," the complaint states.
The police department executed a search warrant on the Nichols' home and business and ransacked both properties. No drugs were found at either property, but officers seized nearly $200,000 in cash that the Nichols lawfully used to conduct transactions for their business, the complaint states.
"Defendants also used property they instructed plaintiffs to purchase in earlier investigations to charge plaintiff Michael Nichols with receipt of stolen property, according to the lawsuit.
It continues: "After threatening plaintiff Michael Nichols' wife and mother with criminal charges and withholding the nearly $200,000 in cash seized from plaintiffs (some of it was mysteriously missing following being taken into defendants' custody), defendants forced Mr. Nichols into making the difficult choice to plead guilty to a single count of receipt of stolen goods. The goods in question were valued at less than $25, and were purchased at the direction of defendants. Mr. Nichols was advised by his attorney at the time that pleading guilty was the best way to go about securing the return of the $200,000 cash which was necessary for plaintiffs' business and to support Mr. Nichols' family."
The Nichols say they have still not received their money back and numerous officers have told them they never will get it.
The family claims that officers harass and intimidate them out of fear that the Nichols could expose them to internal affairs investigations for their conduct. And the family continues to be in danger from gang members and other criminals due to their role in capturing and prosecuting countless suspects, the complaint states.
"Plaintiffs were forced to close their business, a long held dream of theirs, as a result of defendants' conduct. Consequently, plaintiffs went from well-respected and successful members of the community, who defendant Rae Fernandez said should be 'deputized,' to barely scraping by," the complaint states.
The Nichols say they rarely leave their own home for fear of their safety.
"This was the unceremonious ending to a relationship between plaintiffs and defendants that spanned several years and resulted in countless criminal convictions of gang members, burglars, drug dealers, etc. Plaintiffs' selfless actions also resulted in commendations and promotions for defendants, while plaintiffs were stuck with Mr. Nichols' criminal conviction and much of their life savings stolen from them," the complaint states.
The Nichols seek punitive damages for civil rights violations.
They are represented by Ben Meiselas with Geragos & Geragos.