In a long-running battle by two Californian poker players against Iowa State for what they claimed to be the unlawful seizure of their bankrolls, authorities lost their case and were forced to return almost all the money seized, as well as pay damages. This high-profile case, brought against the State of Iowa by William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky, was most probably the cause for the Hawkeye State to disband its Iowa Drug Interdiction Team which oversees its controversial civil forfeiture scheme.
The story began in 2013, when state troopers pulled over the two men driving on Interstate 80 and accused them of not signalling as they changed lanes (this was later proven to be false after video surveillance from the police car was seen by the court). The troopers demanded that the men hand over the $100,000 in the trunk of their car – a right afforded to them under Iowa’s civil forfeiture scheme allowing authorities to confiscate cash and/or property without the need for a warrant. Davis and Newmerzhycky were hit with felony charges after 0.001 grams of marijuana were found in their possession – despite the fact that they are both medical marijuana cardholders.
For years after the event, the two poker players went through legal hoops in an attempt to get the charges dropped and their money returned to them. During this time, they suffered health issues and financial problems, even leaving Newmerzhycky homeless at one point after he had a stroke and couldn’t work to pay his mortgage.
This week, the State of Iowa finally agreed to settle the lawsuit and return 90% of the seized money to the California poker players, as well as $60,000 in damages.
What is interesting is that on the very same day that the state settled, the Iowa Attorney General’s office announced that it was putting an end to the civil forfeiture scheme. The AG would not confirm nor deny that the cancellation of this scheme had anything to do with the poker case.
For many years, the scheme – initially set up to go after big drug lords – has been a controversial one. It has been claimed by many that the authorities actually abuse the system to generate profits for law enforcement agencies and that the forfeiture scheme is, in essence, unconstitutional. The players’ lawyer summed the situation up well by saying: “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.”