Poker Players Win Settlement in Iowa Civil-Forfeiture Case

This week, the state of Iowa agreed to pay a settlement of $60,000 to California poker players William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky to resolve a lawsuit filed by the pair against the state over more than $100,000 seized from the pair during a warrantless traffic stop in 2013.

handcuffsAs a result of the attention generated by the case, which was a part of a wave of alleged “seizure for profit” incidents that occurred across the US in recent years, Iowa has also decided to disband its State Highway Patrol’s interdiction team.  That team was an independent unit initially charged with attempting to curtail interstate trafficking in drugs and other contraband, but which had been widely accused of exceeding its mandate, and perhaps even falsifying police reports to support questionable seizures.

The 2013 case involving Davis and Newmerzhycky began when the two embarked on their return to California from a WSOP Circuit stop in Illinois in April of 2013.  While heading west on Interstate 80 in their California-licensed rental car, the two were pulled over by state troopers on the (false) allegation that the car had changed lanes without using a turn signal.

The officers, Justin Simmons and Eric VanderWiel, soon began a warrantless search after observing that one of the players, Newmerzhycky, seemed nervous and fidgety.  Indeed, the two troopers discovered a small amount of marijuana — Newmerzhycky’s — which eventually led to a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.  Both Davis and Newmerzhycky also possessed California-issued medical-marijuana use cards, though such use is not recognized as legal in Iowa.

Along with the personal-use marijuana, however, the cops found $100,600 in the trunk.  It was the vast majority of the two players’ traveling poker bankroll, swelled by a good run in cash games at the Circuit stop.  That money was seized, as has happened in tens of thousands of other such civil-forfeiture cases in the US in the past couple of decades.

Most times, the value of the assets seized (or stolen, if you will), plus the onerous path toward recovery of those assets, means that most of the time, the victims surrender without a fight.  Tens of thousands of such cases in recent years have made such warrantless seizures highly profitable for the jurisdictions inflicting them upon their victims.

Yet Davis and Newmerzhycky had a good case against the Iowa cops and filed a suit to recover the money.  Last year, they won a partial victory that allowed the case to continue, along with a partial settlement of $90,000.  That still left lawyers’ fees and such to be handled, and so the case continued, with this week’s settlement for an additional $60,000 amounting, roughly, to full restitution plus interest.

The case represents another small step by the US to stem the wave of highway robbery being conducted by the people charged with keeping those highways safe.  There’s still some doubt as to whether Iowa has fully learned its lesson, as the state has yet to overhaul its laws to curtail such warrantless, pretextual searches, as at least ten other US states have done.

According to the players’ attorney, Glen Downey, who spoke to Iowa’s Press-Citizen about the settlement, “The true importance of this lawsuit was that it forced the state of Iowa to re-examine its decades-long practice of pushing the constitutional boundaries of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law and to disband the Iowa Drug Interdiction Team.”

Institute for Justice attorney Lee McGrath also commented to local news outlets, describing the decision Iowa’s elimination of the drug interdiction squad as “an important step to protect Iowans’ property and due process rights from forfeiture abuse.”  Added McGrath, “the state must do more.”

Though the two affected players were made full, after three and a half difficult years, the episode remains an example of what can happen to cash-laden poker players while on the road.

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