Civil Asset Forfeiture

Iowa Will Pay Poker Players Robbed by Forfeiture-Hungry State Cops

The state is also disbanding the interdiction team responsible for the traffic stop.


Iowa State Patrol

Iowa officials have agreed to settle a lawsuit by two California poker players who were robbed of $100,000 after they were pulled over by state police in 2013. The state, which initially maintained that the poker winnings were forfeitable because they were connected to drug trafficking, will pay William Davis and John Newmer­zhycky $60,000 in addition to the $90,000 that was returned before they filed their lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Iowa State Patrol has disbanded the interdiction team that was responsible for the traffic stop, although that decision was not part of the settlement agreement and is supposedly unrelated to the case, which drew national attention to Iowa's forfeiture abuses.

Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Peterzalek recommended the settlement "in light of the complexity of the case and the potential exposure to the state." The lawsuit got a boost from Rodriguez v. United States, the 2015 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that police may not prolong a traffic stop to facilitate an inspection by a drug-sniffing dog unless they reasonably suspect the car contains contraband. Applying Rodriguez last December, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that state police had violated the Fourth Amendment when they detained a motorist an extra 15 minutes so a dog could sniff his car. The dog's alert led to a search, which resulted in the seizure of $33,000 in cash.

The circumstances in which state troopers took Davis and Newmer­zhycky's money were similar, including a pretextual stop, an extended detention that was supposedly justified by the driver's nervousness, and a dog-authorized search. There was also serious doubt about the legality of the initial stop. Trooper Justin Simmons said he pulled the car over because Newmerzhycky failed to signal as he changed lanes, but dashcam video contradicted that claim.

Lee McGrath, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, called the decision to eliminate the interdiction team "an important step to protect Iowans' property and due process rights from forfeiture abuse" but added that "the state must do more." Iowa, which got a D? in the latest I.J. report on civil forfeiture, allows the government to keep seized property based on a "preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the asset is connected to illegal activity. Innocent owners bear the burden of proving they did not authorize or know about the alleged crime. Law enforcement agencies get to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures, which explains why state troopers were so eagerly looking for excuses to stop cars that might contain cash or other valuables.

[Thanks to Joe Kristan for the tip.]