Iowa Civil Asset Forfeiture Team Knows When To Fold Em
December 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Civil asset forfeiture is a lot like poker. If you play it well enough, the cards in your hand don’t really matter. A good poker player can make a whole lot of money with crappy cards. In the same vein, the government can make a whole lot of money with a crappy case, regardless of the facts.
Iowa has been perfecting the art of policing for profit, increasing its budget by nearly $50 million over the last several years, through asset forfeiture. At the center of most of these cases is the Iowa Drug Interdiction Team, which had gained a reputation for highway robbery using asset forfeiture laws in its so-called fight against crime.
Monday, poetic justice was served when two professional poker players turned out to be the downfall of Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture abuse. Luck always runs out. And when your game is based on lies and a crumb of marijuana, it runs out a little sooner.
The case started in 2013 when William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky were pulled over on Interstate 80 in Poweshiek County, Iowa. Davis and Newmerzhycky were traveling from a World Series of Poker event at an Illinois casino back to their homes in California. The whole matter was rife with problems from the beginning.
Trooper Justin Simmons wrote in a report that Illinois law enforcement had tipped them off to the two men, suspecting they were up to something more sinister than travelling home on a highway. At a later deposition, Simmons had a different story. He could not explain why the two men attracted police attention.
After following the poker players for about ten minutes, Simmons pulled them over for failing to use a turn signal when passing another car. This was bullshit not entirely true.
However, attorneys have now argued that a dash camera video taken from Simmons’ patrol cruiser — which was several car lengths behind the Altima — shows Newmerzhycky using his turn signal, contrary to the troopers’ report.
“If you sit down and you watch the video, you can see very clearly that they signaled,” said Benjamin Okin, a Eureka, Calif., attorney who represented Newmerzhycky on California felony charges stemming from the stop.
Simmons gave Newmerzhycky a warning and told him he was free to go. “Free to go,” however, means something different during a traffic stop than it does in the real world. Despite telling the men they could leave, Simmons called for a drug dog. In a testament to police and their video camera skills, the police dog managed to hit on the car out of the view of the camera that was recording the entire stop. It probably just did dog stuff like bark or whine or pant. And, of course, that means drugs. Or cash. Or drug cash. We will never know thanks to nifty police camera work.
The ensuing search revealed over $100,000 in cash. And around one-thousandth of a gram of marijuana, which probably isn’t enough to burn. But it was enough to justify taking all the money. Because, you know, marijuana.
The subsequent forfeiture action resulted in most of the money being returned.
The Poweshiek County Attorney’s Office sought to seize the money under Iowa’s civil forfeiture law, but ultimately returned $90,000 of the $100,020 to the California men through a settlement agreement. (The remainder of the original seized amount — $10,020 — was divided among local and state law enforcement agencies.)
The government gave back 90% of the money it took, which is a loss in anybody’s book. But at the same time, it got to keep $10,000. And the men paid $30,000 in attorney’s fees. So that seems like a loss, too.
The gamblers filed a lawsuit against Iowa seeking damages for what they claimed was an unlawful seizure.
…both men hope to recover additional money through the lawsuit. The cash seizure forced Davis to sit out of poker tournaments through September 2013, the main source of his income, according to the lawsuit.
Newmerzhycky also wants to be compensated for damage to his health that he believes was brought on by legal troubles. He had a glass-blowing business he hoped to restart, but suffered a stroke after learning about the California charges.
This week, Iowa agreed to a settlement of $60,000 t0 resolve the men’s claims.
Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Peterzalek recommended Monday’s $60,000 settlement in “light of the complexity of the case and the potential exposure to the state.” The settlement is on top of the $90,000 that was already returned to the gamblers.
Sounds like a good deal. Until you do the math. After two separate cases and over three years of litigation, the two poker players’ resounding victory netted them … their money back. Seems like a high cost for driving through Iowa with a microscopic amount of marijuana. There aren’t many people who can deal with the loss of $100,000 for extended periods or time (or any period of time), but when you make your living playing poker, the loss really hurts.
Maybe some good came out of the case and the controversy surrounding it. Iowa’s drug interdiction team, which seemed to be at the center of most of the suspect forfeiture cases, was disbanded and its members were returned to actual police work regular law enforcement duties on the same day the settlement with Davis and Newmerzhycky was reached.
Iowa officials deny the two events were related, but a lawyer for Davis and Newmerzhycky wasn’t convinced.
Glen Downey, the attorney for the two gamblers, said he believes the state’s actions to settle the case while simultaneously ending its interdiction team coincide despite Thompson saying the two were independent decisions.
“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,” Downey said Monday.
Maybe these two poker players can claim a hand in disbanding Iowa’s abusive forfeiture practices. But as Newmerzhycky told USA Today, it came at a very high personal cost.
“They destroyed my life, destroyed my reputation, destroyed my health,” he said.
That doesn’t sound like much of a victory.