Attorney General Eric Holder has banned state and local police from seizing cash and property from detainees without the need for a warrant or criminal charge.
Previously, police have been able to confiscate personal property from civilians under a federal program known as Equity Sharing, the proceeds of which were shared between local law enforcement and federal agencies.
The policy was adopted 30 years ago as part of the war on drugs, but it was also easy to abuse, as it was in the case of poker players William “Bart” Davis and John Newmerzhycky, whose plight shed light on the flaws of Equity Sharing.
In April 2013, Davis and Newmerzhycky were driving through Iowa with out-of-state plates when they were stopped by a traffic cop.
Ostensibly, they were pulled over for failing to signal as they overtook a truck on the interstate, although video surveillance in the patrol car later showed that this was not the case.
Police seized the $100,000 in cash they found in the cars’ trunk, which represented most of the players’ poker bankrolls.
They also found a tiny amount of marijuana (0.001 grams), although both men were medical marijuana cardholders in their home state of California.
Davis and Newmerzhycky were hit with felony charges in California and their bank accounts frozen.
While the pair eventually received $90,000 back of the $100,000 confiscated, they were forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees clearing their names.
The stress of the situation led to Newmerzhycky suffering a stroke.
“They took everything that I owned at that point in my life, Newmerzhycky later told Card Player. “My game was just starting to get on point and we decided to take that road trip. I was dealing with a lot of personal issues. My mom was battling cancer and they were trying to sell their house… Those Iowa cops pretty much put an end to [poker] too and ruined my life. I had people willing to back me at the time, but after this happened that was all off the table. Basically, I had to move out of my house and be homeless for a while because I couldn’t pay my mortgage.”
“There is absolutely nothing illegal or uncommon about people driving through the United States with out-of-state plates…and carrying amounts of cash,” complained their attorney to the Des Moines Register at the time. “There’s nothing illegal about carrying cash, and yet law enforcement begins to treat individuals who are carrying cash as if they are criminals.”
Since 2008, local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of property worth more than $3Â billion under the Equitable Sharing Policy.
A spokesman for the DoJ said that the change in policy would “eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”