The Des Moines Register has the story of William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky, two gamblers who had more than $100,000 seized from them after they were pulled over by Iowa state police.
Davis and Newmerzhycky were westbound on Interstate Highway 80 in Poweshiek County on the morning of April 15, 2013, traveling from a World Series of Poker event at the Harrah’s casino in Joliet, Ill. During the trip Davis, a longtime professional poker player, mentored Newmerzhycky on how to improve his poker playing, Newmerzhycky said. The two had known each other for approximately two years.
At the time of the stop, Newmerzhycky was driving a rented red Nissan Altima with Nevada license plates. The Des Moines Register obtained depositions, other documents and dash camera video detailing what happened next.
At 8:50 a.m., Trooper Justin Simmons — a member of eastern Iowa’s interdiction team — began following the vehicle carrying Newmerzhycky and Davis. In a report, Simmons wrote that an Illinois law enforcement officer had relayed concerns to Iowa authorities about a red vehicle, a forfeiture complaint says.
But in a deposition taken while the pair fought the seizure of their money, Simmons said he did not know why Illinois authorities had flagged the red vehicle or whether they’d suspected it was involved in criminal activity. More than 10 minutes after he began following the car, 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 . . .
So the entire stop that lead to the seizure was based on claims by the trooper that either can’t be verified or are clearly contradicted by dash-cam video.
Simmons took Newmerzhycky into his patrol car to conduct a “motorist interview,” a tactic used by interdiction officers to ask questions of a motorist and ferret out suspicious behavior, Simmons said in a deposition. During the interview, Newmerzhycky appeared to be breathing rapidly and fidgeting with his hands — all signs interdiction officers are trained to look at as signs of potential criminal activity, Simmons said in a deposition.
Nonsense. Perhaps he was nervous because he’d heard about the practice of civil forfeiture and was afraid they’d take his money. Or maybe he’s just nervous around cops. Perhaps because he’d read stories like this one.
After telling Newmerzhycky he was free to leave with a warning, the trooper asked whether there were any drugs or cash in the car. Despite Newmerzhycky’s asking if he was free to leave, Simmons called Trooper Eric VanderWiel to the scene so that VanderWiel’s drug dog, Laika, could scan the car’s exterior.
This is another common tactic. The cop tells the motorist he is “free to go,” then tosses out a couple of additional questions or asks to bring in the drug dog. The cop can then argue in court that the additional questions were voluntary, not a product of the official detainment. The insinuation here is that the motorist was free to leave, therefore the search was voluntary. It’s pure fiction. What would have happened if, after Simmons summoned the other trooper, Newmerzhycky simply got into his car and drove away? Would Simmons have let him go? Of course not. Driving away would have been cast as an attempt to flee and probably would have brought criminal charges.
The pair had told the troopers they had no drugs or currency inside the car. In reality, however, Davis kept his money — $85,020 of the total — packaged neatly inside a locked briefcase.
So yes, they lied to the cops. Probably because they knew if they told the cops about their cash, the cops would have taken it from them.
The troopers told the pair that VanderWiel’s dog “alerted” on the vehicle’s back side. However, the spot where the dog alerted was out of the frame of the video from Simmons’ vehicle, the lawsuit said.
Convenient. And not at all uncommon. And drug dogs are notorious for false alerts in the field. In this case, however, the police did find a small amount of pot and a grinder, enough to merit a misdemeanor charge for Newmerzhycky. That was also enough for the state of Iowa to try to keep the money. The Iowa police then called California authorities, who searched the men’s homes. Despite both men having medical marijuana cards, those searches led to felony charges in California. After more than a year, all charges in both states have been dropped, and the state of Iowa has returned $90,000 of the money. But the men are still out some $30,000 they spent on attorney fees and other legal expenses.
As the Register reports, the Iowa state police have previously come under fire for their forfeiture tactics.
Davis and Newmerzhycky’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of Iowa legal battles over state troopers’ tactics. Some Iowa judges have ruled that troopers stretch their authority by holding motorists for searches without reason to suspect criminal activity.
For instance, judges with the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled last year that nervousness being exhibited by a driver who is interacting with a trooper during a stop should not, on its own, be taken as an indicator of criminal activity. In that ruling, judges also said that troopers paint with a “broad and unconstitutional brush” by making decisions to pull vehicles over based on suspicions tied to out-of-state plates.
The lawsuit claims that members of the interdiction teams more often give traffic warnings and citations to drivers from outside Iowa. An October 2013 Des Moines Register review of 22,000 warnings and citations given by the teams from 2008 to 2012 showed that 86 percent went to non-Iowans.
I suspect we’ll see more of this. Residents of Colorado or Washington especially will probably want to think twice before driving through bordering states with large amounts of cash.