(CN) - The owners of L.A. Guns, a mom-and-pop artillery store in West Hollywood, Calif., lost their civil rights appeal Friday over weapons charges brought by the Los Angeles Police Department after a 2005 search.
Store owners Helene and Zoltan Szajer each pled no contest to felony possession of an illegal pistol in 2007. The LAPD got a warrant to search the Szajer's home and store after Zoltan bought unregistered assault weapons from a police informant in a sting operation.
The informant tried to sell Szajer three assault weapons that each required a special permit - a Springfield M1A semiautomatic centerfire rifle with flash suppressor; a Whitney Wolverine semiautomatic pistol that accepted a detachable magazine and a threaded barrel; and a Reising submachine gun.
Szajer initially offered the informant $1,800 for the three weapons, then paid $1,600 for the rifle and the pistol, explaining that he would bring the submachine gun to the sheriff's department since it was an illegal weapon. After the informant left Szajer with the three weapons, Szajer reported the submachine gun to the authorities. While Szajer was on the phone with the sheriff's department, LAPD entered and detained Szajer while waiting on the search warrant.
Initially charged with 13 criminal violations, the Szajers in their plea agreement did not challenge the searches of their shop and home that led to their arrests. They later filed a civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles, the LAPD and various officers.
In their complaint, as quoted in Friday's ruling, they alleged that the searches were illegal and were part of a city policy "to put all gun stores in the city of Los Angeles out of business by relying on stale information, creating fictitious informants, falsifying information included in search warrants, [and] illegally entering the premises of gun stores and planting evidence."
But a federal judge found that the Szajers' challenges were barred by case law, and that they had not offered enough evidence to back up their claims. The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that the Szajers had shown little proof that the LAPD had violated their civil rights and had failed to properly train its officers.
The District Court also found that the Szajers had offered no real proof for their claim that the city and the LAPD had a policy to shut down the city's gun stores.
The federal appeals panel in Pasadena agreed with the lower court, ruling that the Szajers could not challenge the searches in a civil action because they had failed to do so in the criminal case.
"Their civil claims necessarily challenge the validity of the undercover operation and in doing so imply that there was no probable cause to search for weapons," wrote U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary, sitting on the panel by designation from the Northern District of Ohio. "The conclusion that [the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 decision Heck v. Humphrey] bars such a challenge is buttressed by the fact that the Szajers have not set forth, either on appeal or to the district court below, any other basis for the discovery of the assault weapon found in their home, which formed the basis for their plea and conviction."
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.