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Cops took $10K of their casino winnings during a traffic stop. And it was legal

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Cops took $10K of their casino winnings during a traffic stop. And it was legal

Dimitrios Patlias and Tonya Smith have no plans to visit West Virginia ever again.

The Egg Harbor City couple say a traffic stop there in June turned into a summer-long ordeal.

Police suspected the couple of nefarious activities and confiscated more than $10,000 in cash from them, as well as gift cards and casino rewards cards during the highway stop, but didn't charge them with a crime. 

Patlias and Smith say they had to fight to get their possessions back and feared they could have lost all of it through the way police took it - civil forfeiture.

Under West Virginia's civil forfeiture statute, items may be confiscated and subject to forfeiture for a variety of reasons, including if they were "incident to a lawful arrest or pursuant to a search under a search warrant or an inspection warrant" or if an officer has "probable cause to believe that the property was used or intended for use in violation" of state law.

After police found no criminal wrongdoing by the couple, they finally told them to come back to West Virginia to retrieve their belongings last week. 

(And that happened after a West Virginia councilman drove to their New Jersey home to hear about it, and a West Virginia newspaper started looking into it.)

A state police spokesman has not responded to requests for comment about the case.

Vacation plans cut short

The saga began on the evening of June 9 as Patlias and Smith were traveling to Charles Town on their way to Hollywood Casino after making recent successful visits to other casinos along the way.

Smith, a registered nurse at Princeton Medical Center, was on maternity leave and eight months pregnant. As her husband drove, she had a book open studying for an upcoming advanced cardiac life support test.

Just outside of Charles Town city limits, a state trooper pulled over their vehicle, telling Patlias that he had drifted out of his lane. He took Patlias' license and registration and walked back to his patrol car.

Soon he returned and told Patlias to exit his vehicle. Smith figured it was a sobriety check. "Maybe he wants to test him to make sure he's not drinking," she said.

Patlias complied, but didn't like his next request.

N.J. laws allowing cops to seize assets among 'worst in country'

The trooper asked him how much money he had in his possession and Patlias said he refused to answer the question.

"How much money do you have on you? That's a question a thief is going to ask you, not a cop," Patlias said this week as he recalled the traffic stop.

The trooper handcuffed Patlias and radioed for a K-9 to sniff the car for drugs. The cop searched Patlias and removed money from his pockets, as well gift cards he had in his possession, Patlias said.

As another trooper prepared to search the 2003 GMC Envoy, Patlias insisted they needed a warrant. The officers disagreed and scoured the vehicle.

Casino cash confiscated

In all, the couple was carrying $10,478 in cash between them, which were proceeds from several casino jackpot winnings in the previous few days, they said. The couple carried documentation to show these were legitimate, taxable winnings, they said.

Concerned that police were counting his cash in the patrol car, where he could not see what was happening, Patlias told his wife to call 911. A trooper told her she would be arrested for making a false report if she made that call.

She was also removed from the vehicle and the couple say they were forced to stand along the side of the highway for nearly two hours as officers searched the vehicle and their possessions.

"I was 34 weeks pregnant and standing on the side of the road for almost two hours and my husband is in handcuffs and not even arrested," she said, still in disbelief over their experience.

The officers explained they had issues with drug and cigarette smuggling in the area, but they found no contraband during the search, Smith said.

Police seized $171 from a man. It'll cost him $175 to get it back

Then, the issue turned to the subject of gift cards. The couple had 27 gift cards they had received from other casinos they had recently visited. As frequent casino guests, they rack up comps, the couple explained.

The search also turned up scores of casino rewards cards. The cards were in the couple's names and, since they were traveling in a vehicle owned by Patlias' father, officers found old cards in his parents' and siblings' names, Patlias said.

All of these cards, 78 total, were described as "gift cards" in a property disposition report the police gave the couple.

The officers suggested the cards may be the products of a gift card scam or -- in the case of the ones with other names on them -- may indicate an identify theft scheme, the couple said.

Patlias said he had documentation with him to support the legitimacy of the cards and his casino winnings, but that didn't seem to impress the troopers, he said.

They were eventually told they weren't in trouble, that police were investigating gift card fraud in the area, but that police would keep the cash, cards and Patlias' cellphone for the time being. Police would be in touch by phone regarding their possessions.

After giving Patlias the warning for failure to maintain lane, they sent the couple on their way.

They drove off with only $2 in cash.

"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," Patlias declared.

'It's not West Virginian'

Back in New Jersey, they waited to hear from police. Smith gave birth to a boy in July.

They kept up the pressure on West Virginia authorities because they feared, after reading horror stories from others, that they might lose their possessions forever through civil forfeiture.

Their plight got the attention of Charles Town Councilman Michael Tolbert.

Tolbert found out about the situation through an email the couple sent to local officials and actually drove to New Jersey to speak with them.

Cops found pot in his Mercedes, now they own his car

"It was probably one of the strongest, most powerful letters I had ever gotten," he said. "I had this need to go up there and apologize. This was a traumatic thing. This isn't what we West Virginians do."

Tolbert met the couple and their family in Egg Harbor City and got the whole story. While the incident happened just outside of his city, he was angry about the circumstances of the traffic stop and urged them to keep writing letters and demanding a response.

"This should not have happened," he said. "Their possessions were taken from them along the side of the road. That's not right. It's not West Virginian."

What's shocking to Tolbert is that everything that happened was apparently legal.

"People need to know that these things are going on in their name," he said, "... this is not the way we want to represent ourselves."

The couple reached out to the state police, the Jefferson County prosecutor and local media for help. Days after contacting a reporter with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, they were contacted by police and told they could come get their belongings.

A prosecuting attorney can file a forfeiture petition to begin the civil court process of seizing confiscated property in West Virginia, but there was no reason to do so in this case, explained Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Harvey.

"After that traffic stop, my office was contacted about it," Harvey said this week. "We declined to file a petition for forfeiture based on the facts as they were presented to us."

West Virginia's law only allows agencies to file forfeiture petitions in cases involving proceeds from drug crimes or the smuggling of tobacco products.

While Harvey stressed that there was no indication the couple was involved in illicit activity and that nothing illegal was found, he imagined the officers probably saw a few red flags between the large amount of cash and the gift cards.

"Just generally speaking, this is an area that's been hard hit with heroin," he said. "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."

'Nervous when I see police'

While they have their possessions back, they remain upset about the experience and say they have no plans to return to West Virginia.

"I will never set foot in that state again," Smith said. "I'm nervous when I see police now. What kind of country do we live in anymore?"

Tolbert hopes they will reconsider his state in the future.

He offered to meet the couple should they ever return.

"It's an incredibly nice state," he said. "West Virginia has a lot of very decent people and you have to be decent to be West Virginian."

Matt Gray may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow him on Twitter @MattGraySJT. Find the South Jersey Times on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us: nj.com/tips.

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