California Poker Players’ Suit Against Iowa Civil Forfeiture Moves Forward
Two California poker players on a cross-continent road trip who watched helplessly as their $100,000-plus bankroll was seized by Iowa State Patrol officers will be allowed to continue their lawsuit against both the patrolmen and the private business that allegedly taught the officers how to conduct for-profit, warrantless seizures, according to wire-service reports from Iowa.
The story of the two poker players serves as an object lesson as to the secondary perils of the poker world, where traveling players often carry relatively large amount of cash, particularly when traveling to multiple poker venues on a single trip. For William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky, two poker players from California, that peril became reality in April of 2013. The pair’s rented car (bearing California license plates) was pulled over by an Iowa State “interdiction team” of two officers, Justin Simmons and Eric VanderWiel, who subsequently conducted a warrantless search after pulling over the car under false pretenses.
The lawsuit by the players also targets Desert Snow, a company founded by a former patrol officer who teaches other officers and participating departments various tactics for targeting vehicles likely to be carrying valuable contraband, including cash, jewelry and other high-value items. The warrantless searches as taught by Desert Snow are intended to serve as an unofficial revenue source for the law agencies. Among other practices of the interdiction teams, whose tactics are increasingly coming under federal scrutiny, are the intentional targeting of cars with out-of-state plates, since those cars are more likely to carry people bearing “seize-able” assets and less likely to have the wherewithal to fight the seizure after the fact.
In the latest ruling in the case, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner has refused to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit brought by Davis and Newmerzhycky against officers Simmons and VanderWiel and against Desert Snow, the private firm that trained them. Gritzner affirmed that enough evidence exists to at least allow the case to move forward.
The officers claimed the California-plated car had switched lanes without signaling, which the patrol car’s own dashcam footage later showed to be a lie. What the officers were really after, according to the lawsuit, was any high-value contraband that could be seized under the US’s civil forfeiture rules, which generally allow officers to take anything they want from suspects in a form of a legalized shakedown.
Those officers found cash in Davis’s and Newmerzhycky’s car, lots of it. The two were returning from an extended run of good luck at a WSOP Circuit stop in Joliet, Illinois, and were returning to California. As a result, they had just over $100,000 in currency secreted in the trunk of the rental car.
After being pulled over, and delayed for an inordinate amount of time for several different reasons, the pair were finally coerced into opening the trunk, where the players’ combined poker bankroll was found. Officers ultimately did find a small amount of marijuana belonging to Newmerzhycky, who later pled guilty on a misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia charge, but the amount of pot found would not have triggered a seizure of the $100,200 taken from the pair under non-“interdiction” circumstances.
Victims of such civil forfeitures are forced to jump through extreme hurdles to reclaim property stolen from them by such interdiction teams, and the case involving the two Califonia poker players was one of several high-profile warrantless searches to make headlines last year. In Davis’s and Newmerzhycky’s case, the pair first reached a settlement with the Poweshiek County Attorney’s Office under which $90,000 was returned, a figure which still conveniently left the county, in rural east-central Iowa, a healthy profit for their illegal enforcement activities.
It was left up to Davis and Newmerzhycky to continue battling the seizure in an attempt to recoup some of the legal fees which chewed up a portion of that $90,000 the men were able to get returned. That lawsuit was filed last year, when the partial settlement was first reached. However, the Iowa officers and agencies involved refused to fully compensate the California pair for their loss, which including the legal fees involved is believed to have totaled more than $30,000.