Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, have come under fire this week for their decision to use a SWAT team to break up a private poker game, before confiscating a chunk of the players’ money.
The high-stakes game, which took place in November and has counted Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari among its former players, was stormed by heavily-armed law enforcement officers, who broke down the door and pointed assault rifles at the players.
As one player told the Washington Post: “They could’ve sent a retired detective with a clipboard and gotten the same result.”
The result was that cash was seized, including $150,000 from the game’s host, while eight of the ten players were charged with the Class 3 misdemeanor of illegal gambling, punishable by a maximum fine of $500. However, because of a euphemistically-entitled scheme called the “equitable sharing program,” the de facto fine the players paid was far more than $500.
Police kept 40 percent of the money they seized and, considering that this was a $20,000 rebuy tournament, that figures to be quite a lot.
The players themselves, meanwhile, were offered a “deal”: stay clean for six months and the charges will be dismissed. OK, thanks a bunch!
The seizure of the players’ funds has been made all the more controversial by the fact that one of Attorney General Eric Holder’s last moves in office was to scrap the equity sharing program.
The policy was adopted 30 years ago as part of the war on drugs, but it was always open to abuse, and last week Holder effectively banned local and state police from confiscating and keeping property and money from arrestees.
Since 2008, local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of property worth more than $3Â billion.
A spokesman for the DoJ said that Holder’s decision would “eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
However, in Virginia, local law enforcement may still confiscate property, provided that it is done with the blessing of the courts.
This is not the first time that Fairfax police has been criticized for unnecessary heavy-handedness when arresting gamblers.
While private poker games have been raided in the past, things turned deadly in 2006 when a SWAT team was charged with the task of arresting an optometrist named Salvatore J. Culosi Jr.
His crime was that he bet on football games, but he was accidently shot and killed by an officer on the doorstep of his home.
“Detectives have seen that some of the organized card games, even in private homes, may involve hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said police spokesperson Lucy Caldwell. “At times, we’ve seen illegal activity involved in these games. Additionally, at times, illegal weapons are present. With these large amounts of cash involved, the risks are high. We’ve worked cases where there have been armed robberies.”
Following the Culosi incident, Fairfax Police vowed they would be more careful when employing their tactical teams, although, barring the fact that no one got killed this time, there appears to be little evidence of that.