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Iowa Civil Asset Forfeiture Case Gets National Attention

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DES MOINES, Iowa — On a bright, clear morning in April 2013, two professional poker players from California were heading west on Interstate 80 in rural Iowa when they were stopped by two Iowa State Troopers.

Before that stop was over, the officers had seized $100,000, which the men said was money to play poker. The troopers also called ahead to California authorities, who raided the men’s homes and ultimately indicted one of them, John Newmerzhycky, on a charge of illegal possession of drug paraphernalia.

If this sounds unusual and way out of the ordinary, it isn’t. The seizure is just one of thousands of highway stops that state and local authorities call “interdictions:” Roadside stops aimed at catching drug dealers or even terrorists, but which can also result in cash seizures alone with no criminal charges attached.

It’s called Civil Asset Forfeiture, and it was started in the early 1980s by the Justice Department. It has since migrated to thousands of state and local jurisdictions nationwide. The program, when it originated, was meant to target and take money authorities believed was connected to crimes.

A legal advocacy group based in Washington called the Institute for Justice has been battling Civil Asset Forfeiture for years.

“It violates due process for Americans,” said Larry Salzman, an attorney for the group. “It’s wrong. It’s a simple premise that the government should not be taking money from people who have done nothing wrong. It shouldn’t be taking money from people who have not been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime.”

In the case of the two poker players in Iowa, months after their money was taken, they reached a settlement in which most of the money —$90,000 — was returned. They told CNN they believed it was the best deal they could have made at the time. Now, however, they are suing to get the rest of the money back and have asked for unspecified damages. The state of Iowa isn’t giving it back and is not backing down.

“It has had widespread and deep impacts on my life,” said William “Bart” Davis, one of the two poker players. “It’s my primary focus right now. It’s made me aware of the things I was unaware of. And made me angry.”

Other examples are rife.

In a small Nevada county two hours driving time east of Reno, a single deputy sheriff was been responsible for more than a dozen cash seizures in 2014 alone, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of motorists whose money was taken.

That deputy, Lee Dove, asks one motorist in a dash-cam video how much money he has on hand. When the driver answers, Dove said, quote, “It’s not counted is it? Well, I’m seizing it.”

Dove was so proud of his cash seizures that he autographed photos of himself with a bundle of money at his feet, accompanied by his K-9 dog.

CNN wanted to ask him about the seizures but he didn’t answer when our team approached his security gate just after nightfall. As we were driving away a few minutes later, two Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputies pulled us over even though we hadn’t done anything wrong. One of them said their colleague, Dove, “had been going through a tough time” and had called them to complain about our presence. The newly elected sheriff in Humboldt County, Mike Allen, said Dove is still with the department but has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a state investigation.

Allen said the entire program is suspended pending that investigation and that any future stops must have a clear connection to criminal activity.

“I want to know what crime they’re investigating, and what evidence do they have to substantiate that crime before any property is seized, ” Allen said.

The Justice Department recently said it was backing away from the civil asset forfeiture actions it had been taking for nearly three decades. Its records show it seized more than $6 million in the most recent fiscal year. Now, the department says it won’t benefit from most seizures any longer.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Critics like the Institute for Justice, however, say that doesn’t mean the elimination of the practice. The institute’s president, Scott Bullock predicted it will continue in most states around the country.

16 comments

  • Terry Johnson

    I am sure Bransteadt or one of our illustrious county attornies will make sure that the officer is not held accountable. Bransteadt isn’t much for protecting the constitution when it comes to money. The taxpayer should not be on the hook for restitution if the officer broke the law – let him lose his IPERS and if he did break the law(Constitution) send him to Ft. Madison and wish him well. Seig Heil

    • Maxwell Katzenbaum

      The Barney Fifes should be personally on the hook for EVERY cent of any and all legal or court costs when a citizen takes them to court and wins. If they had to pony up from their own pockets for their BS, it’d stop.

  • UpsideDownFlag

    I can see it now. Drug dealer has thousands in cash along with drugs and argues casino profits. To heck with it suspend all laws and let’s have a free for all. I will sit back in a lawn chair with popcorn and drink in hand.

  • Maxwell Katzenbaum

    You don’t think someone should at least be charged with a crime or maybe even convicted BEFORE Barney Fife steals their money?

  • Clyde

    If you take money that isn’t yours, your a THIEF. It doesn’t matter who it is.
    Too bad our 2nd graders are held to a higher standard than our officials.

  • Nick s

    I’m a retired LEO, and this is getting out of hand. Nebraska State patrol and Douglas County Sheriff will pass up on obvious traffic infractions to stop out of state plated cars without probable cause.

    • Scott Lincoln

      If only there were some kind of law or national “rulebook” that says something like “you can’t just seize stuff without a warrant” and “everyone deserves due process.” Maybe we should try and make some kind of list of rights that includes those things….?

  • Ryan

    I heard this county’s attorney speak (brag) about the amount of forfeitures they bring in yearly. This money goes directly to their office and they spend it how they see fit. This is above their yearly budget. The more money they take to more toys they get to buy. You can’t tell me this process is justifiable when greed is involved.

  • Buttersthedog

    I was stopped in Nebraska once not long ago. They instantly gave me a warning for 3 over then they wanted to search. I didn’t care until I saw the officer smell my and friends underwear. When asked why he smelled them he accused us of going to by drugs in Colorado. No evidence supporting it. He just wanted to sniff our undies we concluded.

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