Robber Thief Criminal

California Poker Players’ Bankroll Seizure Triggers Federal Lawsuit

The filing of a federal lawsuit filed by two traveling California poker players against the Iowa Safety Patrol illustrates over a poker bankroll seizure once again the often-perilous nature of toting large amounts of cash to play in high-stakes cash games and poker tournaments.

RobberThe lawsuit, filed by middle-aged California players William “Bart” Davis and John Newmer­zhycky, follows an arguably unlawful search-and-seizure by an Iowa State Patrol “interdiction team,” meaning a roving squad car that’s essentially patrolling the highways looking for likely targets to stop in the hopes of finding contraband or cash that can be seized.

The pretense for these interdiction teams’ stops is that it’s an effective tool against drug smuggling and other forms of illicit behavior, but in real-life the practice — done country-wide across the United States — is a legalized shakedown perpetrated against the defenseless.  In this way, a looming mountain of anecdotal evidence shows, enforcement agencies boost operating budgets via these shakedowns and seizures in a self-feeding cycle of extra-legal behavior.

The phenomenon isn’t new to the poker world, even though it serves as a stark warning about the ever-present perils of traveling with large amounts of money.  However, the police-state practice of “civil seizure” has resulted in an estimated $2.5 billion being taken from travelers without due process, which gives one an idea about how important the extra-legal practice is for these agencies’ budgets.

Just a month ago, the Washington Post published a major expose on the practice, which often goes by the names “Desert Snow” and “Black Asphalt.”  Those two brand names, specifically, refer to an Oklahoma-based private agency that sells training services to American law enforcement agencies, waiving the “anti-terrorism” banner.   while essentially teaching them how to to “interdict” … that is, to seize and pocket… in a manner designed to keep those targeted from having the means to protest unjust seizures.

Here’s another example of the practice being recently skewered by the mainstream, which is taking notice and beginning to fight back.  Check out this Daily Show video from July.

The Iowa case involving the two California poker player represents another egregious misuse of the interdiction laws.  As detailed in the Des Moines Register’s piece on the case, were targeted essentially for driving on I-80 in Iowa while in a car with out-of-state plates.  A subsequent investigation by the newspaper of public records uncovered a startling fact: 86% of all seizures done by the state’s interdiction squads targeted out-of-state drivers, a clear indication of extra-legal enforcement patterns.

In the case of Davis and Newmer­zhycky, that resulted in the seizure of just over $100,000 in cash that the two had used as a playing bankroll while at a WSOP Circuit stop in Joliet, Illinois.  The officer making the stop was later shown to have lied about the pretense for pulling over the car, claiming that the pair’s rented Nissan Ultima had failed to signal a lane change.  (The police car’s own videotaping system showed otherwise.)

Then, the officer intentionally delayed allowing the pair to leave to allow a drug-sniffing dog to arrive on the scene.  The dog did “alert” to drugs — conveniently off-camera, which does nothing to dispel widespread rumors that drug-sniffing drugs being used by patrol officers are now being trained to alert on cue — at which point the officers then claimed to have probable cause to search the car.  The did indeed find some drug paraphernalia, though not enough actual drugs to warrant any sort of arrest, yet they pocketed the $100,000 grand the two players had in cash in the car.

Davis and Newmer­zhycky subsequently filed a claim to retrieve their money, after being able to show that it was theirs from the Illinois poker event.  Nonetheless, they were only able to get two-thirds of the money returned, after legal fees and assessments, and have thus filed suit for the rest.

The disgraceful episode has led the Des Moines Register to publish a follow-up editorial protesting such legalized “highway robbery,” quite rightly declaring the practice as an assault on civil liberties.  That follow-up piece includes more details from the Davis-Newmerzhycky seizure along with details from similar blatantly unethical episodes across the country.  It’s quite easy to see the intent behind the practice, in how the officers are being trained to manufacture a pretense — any pretense — to go about seizing money.

It’s a special concern for traveling high-stakes poker players, who often travel with large suns of cash.  Airport and airline screening has made it potentially risky for fliers to travel with similarly large amounts of cash, and several poker players have reported having funds seized while traveling in that manner as well.  (A celebrated forum discussion thread detailing the extraction of money from players visiting the Bahamas-based PokerStars Caribbean Adventure is just one recent example.)  Even wiring large sums of cash to and from casinos can cause difficulties, as large cash transaction trigger reporting requirements within the US banking system and can arbitrarily be delayed or denied by banking officials.

Thus appears one of the recurring truisms and perils for high-stakes players: There’s always been an inherent amount of risk in getting one’s bankroll to and from the game.  The tales of the old Texas road gambler days were rife with stories of highway robberies, and to be honest, not much has changed in the decades since.

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