The two men in the rented red Nissan Altima were poker players traveling through Iowa on their way to Las Vegas. The police were state troopers on the hunt for criminals, contraband and cash.
They intersected last year on a rural stretch of Interstate 80, in a seemingly routine traffic stop that would soon raise new questions about laws that allow police to take money and property from people not charged with crimes.
By the time the encounter was over, the gamblers had been detained for more than two hours. Their car was searched without a warrant. And their cellphones, a computer and $100,020 of their gambling “bankroll” were seized under state civil asset-forfeiture laws. The troopers allowed them to leave, without their money, after issuing a traffic warning and a citation for possession of marijuana paraphernalia that carried a $65 fine, court records show.
Months later, an attorney for the men obtained a video of the stop. It showed that the motorists were detained for a violation they did not commit — a failure to signal during a lane change — and authorities were compelled to return 90 percent of the money.
Now the men are questioning the police tactics in an unusual federal civil rights lawsuit. In the suit, filed Sept. 29, William Barton Davis, 51, and John Newmerzhycky, 43, both from Humboldt County, Calif., claim their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures were violated. They also contend the stop was part of a pattern connected to the teachings of a private police-training firm that promotes aggressive tactics.
Davis is a professional poker player, and Newmerzhycky worked as glass blower, according to court records. In an interview, Davis said the men felt as though they were being “stalked” by the police.
If allowed to proceed, the lawsuit could illuminate the widespread but little-known police practice known as “highway interdiction.” The suit names Desert Snow, the Oklahoma-based training firm, and its founder, Joe David, court records show. It also names the two Iowa State Patrol troopers who participated in the traffic stop and were trained by Desert Snow.