Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Metro Police and 18 of its officers have been under a judge’s threat of punishment for more than a year over the failure to return several hundred thousand dollars in cash and property that the judge ruled was illegally seized from three Las Vegas gamblers.
In September 2007, District Judge Michelle Leavitt found that Metro officers didn’t get a valid Nevada warrant to seize the assets and that detectives from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department spirited off the property to Phoenix without a court order. The items were confiscated from Brandt England, Michael V. Buono Sr. and his son, Michael A. Buono, in April 2007.
Attorney David Chesnoff, who represents England, likened the Las Vegas raid to the treatment people suffer under the rule of a communist dictator.
“It’s like being in Cuba, your honor,” he told the judge at a July 2007 hearing. “They come to your house from other states. They take everything that you have and then they take it out of state without charging you with anything. And then they don’t even have the decency to provide you with the search warrant affidavit.”
As far back as September 2007, Leavitt was clearly disturbed by the failure of authorities to return the seized items, which she said did not appear to have anything to do with an illegal betting operation, which was the alleged lawbreaking that was the basis for the raids, transcripts show.
“It seems like everyone has lost sight of the presumption of innocence,” Leavitt said. “I’m just looking at what happened here, OK, and what happened here is that I guess a bunch of government entities got together and came in and basically seized all their assets. And that’s exactly what ... you cannot do.”
Leavitt also told lawyers she was astounded that investigators did not get permission from a district judge to take the seized items back to Arizona. By law, property confiscated here must remain here until it is released by a judge, she noted.
“I never heard of just turning property over to another state,” Leavitt said.
Chesnoff and his partner, Richard Schonfeld, are seeking the return of $250,000 in cash and a valuable coin collection taken from England. Attorney John Momot, who represents the Buonos, said he wants back $1,540 in cash, two rare $1,000 bills, a hoard of men’s and women’s jewelry, financial papers and several computers.
The defense lawyers also are fighting to get back more than $2 million detectives in Arizona seized from financial accounts belonging to their clients, and have won a partial order there for the return of some of the money.
Authorities had executed search warrants in Phoenix and Las Vegas in an investigation into a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling operation linked to an offshore betting Web site in Costa Rica. The three Las Vegas men were not among the 31 people arrested in the raid, but they were indicted in Phoenix in March with others there allegedly tied to the operation.
The betting ring, which authorities were attempting to link to New York’s Bonanno crime family, operated mainly through Phoenix area bars, but some financial transactions reportedly were traced to Las Vegas.
On Sept. 17, 2007, Leavitt ordered immediate return of the Buonos’ and England’s property seized in Las Vegas. But when the property wasn’t given back, she scheduled a hearing for Oct. 1, 2007, to decide whether to hold Metro Police and its officers in contempt, along with 10 representatives of three other agencies that participated in the raid — the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, the New York Police Department and the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Leavitt ultimately decided not to consider citing the gaming board and seven of its agents involved in the raid after defense lawyers acknowledged their roles were limited.
More than a year later, however, that contempt hearing has yet to take place. Private lawyers hired by Metro have managed to delay it with a series of legal challenges. The lawyers contended in court papers that Metro should not be held in contempt because the police department doesn’t have property in its possession — an argument Leavitt had trouble buying. The department’s lawyers also argued that Metro has been trying to persuade Maricopa County authorities to return the property to comply with Leavitt’s order.
Before Leavitt could hold her contempt hearing last year, Metro’s attorneys appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court and forced Leavitt’s hearing to be put on hold.
The high court waited nine months before deciding, on July 14, that it had no authority to review the case.
At the urging of the defense lawyers, Leavitt rescheduled the contempt hearing for Oct. 17. But three days before the hearing was to take place, Metro’s lawyers filed court papers asking Leavitt to remove herself from the hearing. They did not cite a reason and were not required to do so.
Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle subsequently intervened, instructing Leavitt to schedule a hearing on whether to take herself off the contempt case. That hearing has been set for Dec. 8.