Iowa-based athletes in betting inquiry sue, say rights violated

More than two dozen athletes who were based in Iowa filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging that state criminal investigators violated their constitutional rights by using geolocation software to track activity on their cellphones as part of a widespread sports wagering inquiry that resulted in criminal charges and the loss of NCAA eligibility.

At issue in the 47-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa is whether the state's criminal investigators needed a search warrant before using a program from third-party company GeoComply to find athletes -- including many who were under 21, the legal betting age in Iowa -- and conduct searches to examine their online wagering activity.

The plaintiffs are 26 current and former athletes: 16 from the University of Iowa, nine from Iowa State and one from a community college in central Iowa. Thirteen played football, six wrestled and the other seven played baseball or basketball.

"The lives of these young men have been disrupted and altered in way[s] still yet to be fully seen," Matt Boles, Adam Witosky and Van Plumb, the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "It is our hope that through the civil action we can help these young men put their lives back on track and gain a measure of justice for the violation of their rights."

The lawsuit alleges the state; its Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Investigation; and its agents violated the athletes' civil rights by using the GeoComply software without a warrant to identify phones using mobile sports betting apps within Iowa and Iowa State athletic facilities.

The DCI declined to comment when reached Friday about the lawsuit.

GeoComply provides geolocation software to major sportsbooks to monitor users. The lawsuit notes that when users register with online betting companies, they "consent to share their location data with GeoComply, who in turn provides this data back to the companies." Written policies from DraftKings and FanDuel, the two online sportsbooks the athletes used, tell users the companies may disclose personally identifying information to law enforcement.

DCI agents were given access to the GeoComply platform, and it was licensed through the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, which regulates gambling in the state.

While state investigators subsequently had warrants to obtain and search the athletes' phones, the lawsuit alleges those warrants were "invalid and unconstitutional" because the information used to justify them was acquired without a warrant. The plaintiffs also say DCI supervisors failed to properly train their staff and intervene when they learned of the alleged actions.

Sixteen of the plaintiffs were criminally charged, and 12 of them pleaded guilty to underage gambling. Four athletes were charged with identity theft, a felony. Their cases were dismissed in March after prosecutors in Story County, responding to arguments raised by defense attorneys, filed a motion noting that new evidence showed state investigators "exceeded the scope of its permitted use" of GeoComply's program.

The other 10 plaintiffs were not charged with crimes, but the investigation resulted in a loss of playing time, the threat of NCAA or NFL sanctions and/or damage to their athletic career, the lawsuit states. Some athletes who were not charged lost some or all of their remaining eligibility when schools learned of their wagering activity.

The NCAA prohibits athletes from betting on any sport it sponsors at any level.

The attorneys have asked for actual and punitive damages for each plaintiff.

The lawsuit alleges DCI agents told the athletes they were not the targets of the investigation but rather were assisting in an inquiry of sports betting companies.

Several athletes told ESPN that DCI agents came to their residences on May 2 and asked them to turn over their cellphones, which were returned the same day. The athletes said their family members and others whose names were on betting accounts also had their phones searched.

In March, DCI commissioner Stephan Bayens, who is a defendant in the suit, said in a statement that prosecutors repeatedly told his agency they believed the actions taken in the investigation were legal. "I fully stand behind the investigation and the agents who did the work," he said.