Officers arrested, searched residents for no reason — then stole their cash, feds say

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A squad of officers conducted illegal searches and arrests in New Jersey as a pretext to rob residents out of cash, federal prosecutors say.

Now, a sergeant is facing decades in prison.

On May 26, a federal jury convicted Michael Cheff on one count of conspiracy to deprive persons of civil rights and one count of falsification of a police report, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.

The 51 year-old was a sergeant with the Paterson Police Department in Paterson, New Jersey, a city about 20 miles northwest of New York City at the time of the case, court documents show.

Cheff’s defense attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News.

Cheff supervised a squad of officers that worked together on a shift that began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 3:45 p.m., court documents show.

Prosecutors said between 2016 and 2018, Cheff and his officers conducted illegal stops and searches of individuals in their vehicles, on the streets or in their homes and stole money from them.

As a sergeant, one of Cheff’s responsibilities was to approve officers’ reports and other paperwork related to “arrests and seizures of money, narcotics, and firearms, among other things,” according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said when making illegal stops, the officers would steal cash from the vehicle’s occupants, split it among themselves and pass a cut of the stolen money to their sergeant, Cheff.

Officers used the same tactics while searching individuals in buildings or on the streets, court documents show.

Prosecutors said Cheff was able to conceal the scheme by approving false reports submitted by officers “that omitted, or lied about, their illegal activities.”

In one instance, in November 2017, officers stopped and arrested a resident outside his home — stealing several hundred dollars in the process, prosecutors said.

Then, Cheff and other law enforcement personnel lied to obtain their consent to search their residence, court documents show. During that search, prosecutors said Cheff stole about $2,000 from a safe in a bedroom and put most of it into his pocket.

The person whose apartment was searched said he had a safe with about $2,700 inside, court documents show. After officers finished the search, he said it was completely empty.

Cheff gave approximately $319 to one of the officers to submit as evidence for an incident report, prosecutors said. The report, which Cheff approved, stated that officers found $319 “on the top of a shelf” and did not mention they found the money in a safe.

Court documents show Cheff then later distributed some of the stolen money to several officers in the bathroom of the police department.

The officers involved in this case pleaded guilty and await sentencing, according to the release.

Prosecutors said Cheff faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 on each count. A sentencing date is pending.

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