Poker Players Win Civil Forfeiture Case against Iowa Police

Posted on: December 7, 2016, 07:15h. 

Last updated on: December 7, 2016, 07:15h.

William “Bart” Davis (left) and John Newmerzhycky Receive Damages from Iowa
William “Bart” Davis (left) and John Newmerzhycky, who had their bankrolls seized by Iowa police in 2013 without a warrant and on trumped up charges. The pair have finally cleared their names and on Monday received damages from the state of Iowa. (Image: Card Player)

Two California poker players have won their longstanding battle with the state of Iowa after they had their bankrolls confiscated during a warrantless search by two state troopers in 2013.

William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky claimed that $100,020 was seized unlawfully from the trunk of their car under the controversial civil forfeiture scheme, which allows law enforcement to confiscate cash and property from detainees without the need for a warrant or criminal charge.

On Monday, the very day the state agreed to settle the lawsuit by returning 90 percent of the funds to the players, plus $60,000 in damages, it also announced it would disband its Iowa Drug Interdiction Team, which oversees the state’s civil forfeiture scheme. The Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to say whether the two decisions were related.

Until the 1980s, civil forfeiture was used almost exclusively to target convicted drug kingpins. But the broadening of its scope over the past 30 years has led many critics to claim the system is being abused to generate profits for law enforcement agencies and that officers are incentivized to confiscate cash under circumstances that possibly violate the constitution.

Long Battle to Clear Names

In April 2013, Davis and Newmerzhycky were driving through Iowa along the Interstate 80 when they were pulled over by officers Justin Simmons and Eric VanderWiel, ostensibly for failing to signal as they changed lanes, although video surveillance in the patrol car later showed that this was not the case.

Along with the cash in the trunk, which was essentially the entirety of the players’ bankrolls, they found a tiny amount of marijuana (0.001 grams), although both men were medical marijuana cardholders in their home state of California.

As a result, the players were hit with felony charges and their bank accounts frozen. In the ensuing expensive and protracted battle to clear their names Newmerzhycky suffered a stroke, brought on, he believes, by the stress of the situation.

Pushing Constitutional Boundaries

“Those Iowa cops pretty much put an end to [poker] and ruined my life I had people willing to back me at the time, but after this happened that was all off the table,” Newmerzhycky later told Card Player Magazine. “Basically, I had to move out of my house and be homeless for a while because I couldn’t pay my mortgage.”

Glen Downey, the attorney for the two gamblers, said he believes the settlement of his clients’ lawsuit and the disbanding of the Drug Interdiction Team were no coincidence.  

“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.”