Iowan 'Drug Interdiction' Officers Legally Steal $100K From Poker Players Passing Through Their State

from the two-'drug-traffickers'-with-nothing-but-a-grinder-between-them dept

Asset forfeiture is back in the news again. No sooner had it been recommended that Canadian visitors to the US do everything they can to avoid interactions with law enforcement officers (i.e, drive super-carefully, don’t consent to searches, avoid long conversations with officers by continually asking if you’re free to go, etc.) in order to prevent any large amounts of cash being seized, then an incident occurs that throws all that semi-useful advice out the window.

The Des Moines Register highlights an Iowa forfeiture case, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed this week, in which state troopers took $100,000 in winnings from two California poker players traveling through the state on their way back from a World Series of Poker event in Joliet, Illinois.

Driving carefully and obeying traffic laws? Mostly worthless.

More than 10 minutes after he began following the car, [State Trooper Justin] Simmons initiated a traffic stop, claiming Newmerzhycky failed to signal while passing a black SUV.

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.

Don’t just take the attorneys’ word for it. Go view the video yourself at the Des Moines Register website (where it will “conveniently” AUTOPLAY). Around the 30-second mark, you can clearly see the left-hand turn signal being used.

Bad news is: the courts pretty much don’t care whether or not any infraction actually occurred, as long as an officer claims it happened, as Reason’s Jacob Sullum points out:

In the absence of such contrary evidence, cops are free to invent minor traffic infractions to justify a stop they want to conduct for other reasons. Although it does not condone such prevarication, the Supreme Court has said any valid legal reason makes a stop constitutional, even if it’s a pretext for a more ambitious investigation.

In this case, there’s “contradictory evidence,” but all that really means is a person subjected to this is facing a long, expensive legal battle to reclaim his or her funds. Iowan “interdiction teams” have made the most of this loophole — as well as a civil asset forfeiture program that has netted local law enforcement nearly $7 million over the last three years — targeting non-Iowan drivers 86% of the time.

As for avoiding long conversations with law enforcement by pressing the “am I free to go?” question… that didn’t exactly work either.

The two gamblers nearly got away with leaving with their legally-obtained funds, but the trooper extended the detainment by asking for favors. All he wanted to do was “ask a couple of questions.” And bring in a drug dog. John Newmer­zhycky (who I’ll be referring to by his first name should the need arise) asks if he can decline this extra attention. The officer agrees he can, but then asserts that John seems too “nervous.” Who wouldn’t be, knowing that law enforcement officers aren’t generally inclined to believe the cash stashed in your rented vehicle was legally obtained?

In fact, who could possibly avoid triggering any of these signs of suspicion, which are presented in drug interdiction training as indicators of guilt? From the federal lawsuit [pdf link]:

Defendant Desert Snow and Joe David’s training taught Trooper Simmons that completely innocent behaviors were indicators of criminal activity, including:

Dark window tinting
Air fresheners or their smell
Trash littering a vehicle
An inconsistent or unlikely travel story
A vehicle on a long trip that is clean or lacks baggage
A profusion of energy drinks
A driver who is too talkative, or too quiet
Signs of nervousness, such as sweating, swallowing or redness of face
Designer apparel or other clothing that seems inappropriate
Multiple cellphones

The list of contradictions is all the justification interdiction officers need to turn baseless traffic stops into full-blown search-and-seizures. Talk too much or too little while standing outside your too clean or too dirty vehicle and you too could be relieved of your cash, electronics — even the vehicle itself.

Shortly thereafter, the drug dog arrived and John gave the officers permission to search the vehicle, performing the alert everyone expected to happen, albeit off-camera. (It would have been captured on camera had Officer Simmons not switched his off upon his arrival at the scene.) The officers opened the trunk and found the $100,000 in cash and the one thing it needed to justify taking it all: a grinder with bits of marijuana in it.

This minor paraphernalia charge was the only charge brought against the two men. Because John had previously denied the vehicle held “large amounts of cash” during the trooper’s roadside fishing expedition, it was presumed that the grinder was simply a small part of a much larger drug operation.

And, to add the last little dig at the two men whose $100,000 they had seized, an interdiction agent called in a tip that resulted in police searching both men’s residences in California. Marijuana was found in their homes, but it was for legal, medicinal purposes. Felony charges were briefly pursued but were dropped once the California prosecutors viewed the traffic stop video.

But these two didn’t give up. They fought back, finally forcing the state to return $90,000 (apparently there’s some sort of surcharge/skim that automatically comes out of “forfeited” funds), one-third of which went directly to reimbursing their lawyers for their efforts. Now, they’re hoping to take a bit more back from the state via a lawsuit. John claims to have lost his home and his business due to the expenses and stress incurred as a result of this battle. The other plaintiff, William Davis, said the loss of funds prevented him from entering other tournaments — something he does for a living. He was also kicked out of his apartment by his landlord, who presumed that a search by police officers was actually an indicator of criminal activity, which is (like anywhere) a violation of lease conditions.

In addition, the searches by Humboldt County (CA) officers triggered the freezing of both men’s bank accounts. Despite having charges dropped by the local prosecutor and despite having the money returned to them by the state of Iowa, these accounts remain frozen to this day.

So, not only did Iowan law enforcement lift $100,000 from these men, they also effectively made them jobless and homeless. Civil asset forfeiture affects much more than your cash on hand. It can destroy your life. And all many officers need to start this ball rolling is a contradictory checklist and the presence of cash or drug paraphernalia. At that point, you may only be a suddenly luckless poker player just ‘passing through,’ but in the eyes of interdiction teams, you may as well be Pablo Escobar himself.

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Comments on “Iowan 'Drug Interdiction' Officers Legally Steal $100K From Poker Players Passing Through Their State”

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Anonymous Coward says:

When I grew up, I thought cops were these wonderful people who would die to save you. Now, many are just armed thugs with vests and humvees.

This is why so many no longer see police as the good guys and why so many dont care when they hear about a sniper executing a police officer or near where I live, a person calling in a distress call so he can shoot the officer in the head as he responds to the call.

What a shame that it is so easy for police to steal from people.

Anonymous Coward says:

They fought back, finally forcing the state to return $90,000 (apparently there’s some sort of surcharge/skim that automatically comes out of “forfeited” funds), one-third of which went directly to reimbursing their lawyers for their efforts.

Gotta love this – the officers fuck up, yet the people they fucked over get to pay for the privilege.

End qualified immunity NOW.

limbodog (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The officers did not “fuck up”. The officers knew exactly what they were doing, and that they would likely be rewarded for doing so, and that the odds were minimal that the department would have to reimburse the stolen money. This really is theft, it’s not something that kind of looks like theft. It’s not an accident that pays out in the police’s favor. It’s organized crime.

David says:

Small correction

At that point, you may only be a suddenly luckless poker player just ‘passing through,’ but in the eyes of interdiction teams, you may as well be Pablo Escobar himself.

Uh, they wouldn’t fuck with Pablo Escobar. They’d sell him automatic weapons at a discount and lose the receipt.

This is the U.S.A. we are talking about here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m with you on that one.

I know there are DEA forms you have to fill out when withdrawing large sums of cash from a bank account, and that makes me wonder if the police aren’t tapped in to these flags so they can be on alert for the cars as they leave the bank.

I know that these guys didn’t get their winnings from a bank (unless they cashed a check maybe?) but it just seems awfully coincidental that they always manage to pull the 1 in 1000 driver with a few grand+ wandering around the highways.

Anonymous Coward says:

1. If I were collecting huge amounts of money, I would insist on direct deposit if it’s at all an option.
2. Something needs to be done about civil forfeiture law. This bullshit has got to stop.
3. These cops need to be handled like the crooks they are. There’s just no way they thought this seizure had anything to do with drugs.
4. Drug dogs need to be done away with as justification for a search. Get a search warrant first, then you can use the dogs.

thegovernmenttotallysucks says:

Here’s hoping that karma assfucks those crooked cops… The whole situation is a god damned disgrace, those cops might as well have took a big steamy shit on the constitution… The only Serving And Protecting going on were with their own agendas. When cops go crooked it should be considered treason. They are betraying the very people they are entrusted to protect!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

How many times do these moron civilian drivers decide to carry around that much money in cash? What a bunch of morons. Because if the police stop you, it is reasonable to assume that the money is drug money.

First of all, what the fuck was this driver carrying $100k in cash. STUPID! Get a cashier’s check and wait to cash it later.

Second, while the cops are partially at fault, you can’t blame them for assuming the cash was ill gotten booty.

Finally, unless you’re a moron, you should know better than to go around carrying that much money in cash. either deposit it in your bank account before you head for home or get a cashier’s check for the amount. Because you’re just asking to either get robbed by felons or get robbed by the police.

You get what you deserve for being stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“What a bunch of morons. Because if the police stop you, it is reasonable to assume that the money is drug money.”

No, it isn’t. Having large sums of cash is evidence of having large sums of cash, but it certainly isn’t evidence of dealing drugs. If you don’t have evidence that the money was obtained by criminal means, do not seize the money!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Careful with that logic there...

Because if the police stop you, it is reasonable to assume that the money is drug money.

Because if you are stopped by police, it is reasonable to assume that the guns they are carrying are murder weapons.

Because clearly, just like no-one could possible have large sums of money on them for anything but drugs, no-one could possible have a gun on them if they aren’t planning on murdering someone. And guess what group of people are armed almost all the time?

Almost Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re:

I tend to agree with him. He didn’t say that carrying large sums = drug dealer, but the point he’s making is that everybody knows at this point that this is the excuse that cops will use to take your money. So why do it? The excitement of carrying around 100k in cash? Pretty stupid. Even more stupid if you know you have drug paraphernalia in the car too.

I’m not saying these guys deserved what they got, but I am saying that they could have done a couple of simple things that would have prevented the whole mess, and not doing so was simply, well, stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Imho you are correct because basicly what you are saying is that everyone with a lot of cash is a drug dealer. From which I would assume the normal American is seen as a poor person who can not in any way make that amount of money in a legal way. Which says that the american economy is broken and that there is no way for the average person to earn that amount of money.

My suggestion is stop everyone driving around in a car that cost more than the average person earns in a year, around $50.000 . Stop and seize each Mercedes and other cars in that price region because that must be a drug dealer!

I applaud you Sir for speaking the truth that only few lucky people earn that amount of money and declaring the “american dream” as a dream of dealing drugs.. well done Sir! Well done!

Dave says:

Re: Re:

How can someone be stupid if they are carrying their own, legally-acquired property or money? If the stuff belongs to you, you might be naive not to take precautions against being robbed by criminals but you don’t expect to be robbed by the police AND have to forfeit a considerable sum to get most of it back. This is sheer daylight robbery going by a different name.

Josh (profile) says:

My responses to their training.

Dark window tinting – some people don’t like the sun
Air fresheners or their smell – Who doesn’t like the smell of trees?
Trash littering a vehicle – Have you seen the family with 4 young kids having a clean vehicle?
An inconsistent or unlikely travel story – I have to justify why I am traveling?
A vehicle on a long trip that is clean or lacks baggage – Can’t have a clean or littered car?
A profusion of energy drinks – So coffee cups are OK?
A driver who is too talkative, or too quiet – You have to talk just right?
Signs of nervousness, such as sweating, swallowing or redness of face – Your facing a cop, who isn’t a bit nervous?
Designer apparel or other clothing that seems inappropriate – How dare you don’t wear Walmart clothing, says the fashion police.
Multiple cellphones – Really? Home/work/on call, that’s 3 and all justified.

Christopher (profile) says:

The lesson we learn from this is...

Don’t say anything, don’t consent to anything, ask if you are free to go, and if you are, go.

If the police teach people that there is no upside to cooperating with them, then people are going to stop cooperating with them, and you’d think that would make the Police’s job harder.

But, on the other hand, they have guns and courts on their side, so its not like they need us civilians to cooperate.

Keith (profile) says:

Where's the rest of the story?

“The officers opened the trunk and found the $100,000 in cash and the one thing it needed to justify taking it all: a grinder with bits of marijuana in it.”

I’m not saying there’s not a HUGE amount of corruption in the legal system, but even I have to admit that this doesn’t make the guys pulled over look legit. Why was this ‘grinder’ never mentioned again in the story? What was the deal with it? Was it already in the rental vehicle?

Assuming that most rental places clean their vehicles before their turn-around I would guess that these guys put it there. And since it’s a rental I would also guess that they did it recently.

I know that I don’t have a grinder that’s been used on marijuana in the truck of my car (or anywhere else for that matter). Why did these guys? What’s the story behind that?

I’m all for bashing corrupt cops, but I can’t help but feel there’s too much missing from this story to do it while being secure in my stance.

shane (profile) says:

How is this tech?

I was randomly stopped and searched for drugs. The dog supposedly gave the go sign. Anyhow, I drive a car my grandmother drove before me, and neither of us do drugs or traffic them. The police found nothing. Lucky me they did not decide to impound the car and take it apart. Possibly some car mechanic left a roach in one of the doors when replacing the window motor…

Anyhow, stories like this infuriate me, and I am glad to see someone reporting on it, but what exactly does this have to do with tech?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How is this tech?

“Possibly some car mechanic left a roach in one of the doors when replacing the window motor…”

It’s far more likely that the dog responded to non-verbal cues from its handler, who already “knew” you had drugs in your car. Look up “Clever Hans” to understand why the use of drug dogs is such a problem.

Zonker says:

Indicators of criminal activity:

Stopping a vehicle that has not violated any traffic law.
Turning off the dash cam during a traffic stop.
Lying about the reasons for stopping your vehicle.
Insists on asking a lot of questions.
Wants to search your vehicle without probable cause.
Makes you wait for a dog to sniff your vehicle.
Signals the dog to alert on your vehicle off camera.
Burglarizes your vehicle stealing cash and tools used to administer your legally licensed medication.
Burglarizes your home searching for your legally licensed medication.
Freezes your bank accounts.
Keeps 1/10 of the stolen money after being ordered to return it.
Takes 1/3 of the remaining stolen money to be returned to the rightful owner.
Illegal eviction of tenant for being the victim of a robbery.

John85851 (profile) says:

Something seems fishy to me also

I agree that something in this story doesn’t add up. If these two were professional poker players, they should know the risk of carrying that much money in cash. What’s to stop someone from robbing them on their way home? Oh, look, the police got to them before some criminals did.
If they live in the US and the poker tournament was in the US, why in the world did they accept cash? Why not a cashiers check or direct deposit into their accounts? Or would these trigger an investigation from the IRS and they wanted to avoid paying taxes? (So instead of paying 50% in taxes, the police try to take 100%.)

Next, they’re driving from Illinois to California? Do they not know that police target cars with out-of-state tags simply because they know the drivers aren’t going to come back to fight the ticket? So there’s the risk of getting pulled over (for anything) and then there’s the risk of the police searching the car.

And did they not realize they had marijuana stuff in their trunk? It might be legal in California, but if the police are bored (or need money) they could charge the guys with possession of drugs.

And did they tell the police their money was won at a poker tournament? Did the police not believe them? Did the guys have proof, like photos or an award? Why couldn’t the police call the tournament organizers and ask if these guys won?

Now, granted, all of these things are easy to say after the fact, but why didn’t they just fly? They may have gotten away with it by putting the money in their checked luggage.

shane (profile) says:

Re: Something seems fishy to me also

Most of these questions have pretty simple plausible answers. Cashier’s checks cost money. If you belong to a small bank or credit union you will not have a branch out of state.

Flying is often more expensive than driving. I could fly to my grandmother’s but I tend to make the nearly five hour drive because the plane ticket is more than the gas and I hate airports these days.

Just in general, WHY SHOULD WE HAVE TO DO ANYTHING SPECIFIC TO AVOID THE GOVERNMENT STEALING. All of these questions you have ASSUME the people are doing something wrong. We are supposed to be innocent until PROVEN guilty, and no one is to lose life, liberty or property without due process of law.

These laws are patently unconstitutional. The practice needs to come to a screeching halt. The End.

That’s my two cents.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Something seems fishy to me also

“They may have gotten away with it by putting the money in their checked luggage.”

Methinks ye just gave away your occupation there officer.

Your use of the term “Gotten away with it”…. means you consider their actions to be criminal and that their intent was to break the law.

They committed no crime. The money was legally gained and belonged to them. Yet you state that they could have “Gotten away with it”, if they’d taken a different route such as flying home rather than driving.

Of course, if you’re a cop, then you likely consider the possession of pot to be more than sufficient grounds for assuming they are criminals intent on “getting away with it”.

Methinks that fish is in your pocket.

Gary says:

Bad Iowa Judge Salic and Mitchell County Mark Walk Auron Murphy Crooked Settup. Bad Dishonest Officals

Stole Money using courts system.Kidnapping innocent Kids ruining good families. Nasty People whom State of Iowa has inpowered to screw over the poor innocent people of Iowa. Cant get any help to sue these People
Under the Color of Law they are using the law fpr their own personal vendettas.Shame on Iowa Shame on these Sorry excuses for these sorry nasty human beings.

Gary says:

Dishonest Legal System in Iowa Courts.

Iowa Courts are No better than Theifs Crooked deals in these Courts. There is no honest Law in Iowa or Judges or Attorneys. They all kiss each others rears. No justice for anyone.They charge you in court whether your guilty or not guilty. Plus charge you for jail even though was false arrest.Charge you $300 for jail.These iowans have no Law thats fair to anyone. Just like they stole these guys Money. If not for Attention in News they would never have gotton it. They have stole from me. Feds do nothing about it either. Iowa is not a nice place to visit! Drive around it if you can

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