A road trip can be a pretty nice change of view especially for a couple who's expecting a baby in a few more weeks, but for this casino-gambling couple, they are going to remember this one for the rest of their lives, not that it went well but because they were treated as criminals and even had all but $2 of their money seized from them.
Last week, a couple from New Jersey was able to finally retrieve $10,478 worth of casino wins that West Virginia state police seized from them in a traffic stop on June 9. The state returned the money only after local media began reporting the incident in public.
The couple, Dimitrios Patlias and Tonya Smith, was pulled over for purportedly swerving from their lane on the highway. They were heading for the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town. After two hours which seemed like forever for the couple, police finally let them off with just a warning, however, they took all of their cash except for $2. West Virginia state police were able to confiscate the money under what is called ‘civil asset forfeiture', a practice that has been there for decades and has been exercised in administrations of both political parties.
According to Patlias, state police asked him bluntly, "How much money do you have on you?" When he refused to answer the question, he was handcuffed and a drug-sniffing dog was called to the scene to search their car. When no drugs were found, it was at that point the police searched their pockets and took over $10,000 of their casino winnings. The couple said they visited other casinos close by prior to going to Charles Town. They claimed they had documentation to show that they had won the money in their casino gambling activities.
Police also seized gift cards and casino reward cards from them.
Patlias said, "They violated my Fourth Amendment rights. They took me and my pregnant wife out of the car on a dangerous highway and left us with $2 to get home."
On the other hand, a local prosecutor defended the unpleasant incident by putting the blame on heroin, "Just generally speaking, this is an area that's been hard hit with heroin. We have a lot of out-of-state people that come in and deal. Gift cards are a currency that's used in the drug world."
Most of the cards they had were either reward or loyalty cards that one gets from many chain businesses.
For two months, the couple waited patiently for documents to arrive in the mail. Unable to reach the prosecutor, they opted to contact a local newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Pressure from the increased press attention apparently led to a call coming from the state police, finally making arrangements to return their property.
On August 23, the couple had to drive back down to West Virginia in order to get their money and property back.
Even though they got their money and other possessions back, the couple has vowed never to visit West Virginian casinos ever again. Smith said, "I will never set foot in that state again. I'm nervous when I see police now. What kind of country do we live in anymore?"
Civil asset forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture ran extensively under the Obama Administration and while there were efforts to reform it a year before Obama stepped down, it was futile. Then come the Trump Administration, which under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, continued the highly-controversial practice. Civil asset forfeiture is often enforced to seize cash and other possessions from suspected drug traffickers. Jeff Sessions has bolstered the practice due to his hatred of marijuana.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia lawmakers did not act on a bill on February this year that could have helped innocent people recover their seized possessions.
While the couple had to spend their summer working in order to keep afloat and recover their money, their experience wasn't as bad when compared to what happened to two California poker pros that had to endure a lot when the state of Iowa cops seized around $100,000 of their poker winnings in a routine traffic stop in 2013. A few years later, they were able to make the state to shell out over $150,000, but they still had to spend for attorney fees.
Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said, "The vast majority of people don't get this kind of attention, but in a few days of announcing a lawsuit, law enforcement will opt out and give back the property. The people who are victims of civil forfeiture aren't necessarily innocent people, but many just get caught up in the web of the proceedings. There's no need for a criminal charge, and law enforcement has that financial incentive. So you end up with a lot of people losing their property through no fault of their own."