A recent case of civil asset forfeiture abuse recently got its happy ending after musician Phil Parhamovich was stopped in Wyoming for not buckling his seatbelt and duped into signing away his interest on $92,000 in cash, an amount which he just reclaimed.
Guest post by Tim Cushing of Techdirt
Another awful story of civil asset forfeiture abuse comes to us via German Lopez at Vox. But at least this one has a happy ending. The beginning, however, is anything but happy. Musician Phil Parhamovich made the mistake of driving in Wyoming without his seatbelt buckled. A click-it ticket in Wyoming usually runs about $25. In Parhamovich's case, it cost him nearly $92,000.
Phil Parhamovich had been waiting for this moment for a long time. The 50-year-old had spent years restoring and selling houses, cars, and musical instruments, often clocking 12-hour workdays, to save up more than $91,000. And now it was all going to pay off: He would buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin, where Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins recorded songs — not just fulfilling a dream of owning a monument to grunge rock, but also giving him a space to work on his own career as a musician.
Then came the police stop this past March. By the time it was over, police in Wyoming would take all of Parhamovich’s money — the full $91,800. Parhamovich, who has no criminal record, was not accused of or charged with a serious crime; he only got a $25 ticket for improperly wearing his seat belt and a warning for “lane use.”
But Wyoming law enforcement officers found and eventually seized the $91,800 in cash, as it was hidden in a speaker cabinet — by getting Parhamovich, under what he claims was duress, to sign away his interest in the money through a waiver.
With all apologies to Parhamovich -- who got screwed by the civil asset forfeiture system -- Wyoming law enforcement couldn't have asked for a better mark to come passing through their state. Parhamovich disavowed ownership of the money and signed a waiver stating the same thing. That's a perfect storm of complicity.
But while we're still being fair, most Americans aren't aware law enforcement officers regularly engage in pretextual traffic stops for the sole purpose of warrantless searches and seizures. According to the musician, the cops made it sound like cash was just another form of illegal contraband.
At one point, the officer asked Parhamovich if he had a long list of items in his car — specific drugs, a weapon, a large amount of cash, and so on. With the way the question was phrased, Parhamovich said he was worried that answering “yes” would make things worse, since it could wrongfully imply he had illegal drugs in his car. He also became concerned, since he was questioned about cash and illegal drugs at the same time, that it was potentially against the law to carry so much cash at once. (It is not.)
Cops looking to directly profit from traffic stops rely on citizens being unfamiliar with local laws and their legal rights. (Perversely, they rely on not knowing the law when being sued for violating rights.) Hence the highway patrol tendency to pull over out-of-state drivers. The officer here went poaching. He even had a property waiver form written up and ready to go -- something that doesn't seem like it should be a part of day-to-day traffic law enforcement.
In the end, law enforcement took Parhamovich's $91,800 and wrote him a $25 ticket. Parhamovich -- with the assistance of the Institute for Justice took the state to court to get his money back. And Parhamovich has won, somewhat unexpectedly.
A Wyoming judge ordered the state Friday to return nearly $92,000 seized from a musician during a traffic stop that resulted in no criminal charges or even an arrest, according to the man’s attorney.
Attorney Dan Alban said Judge Peter Arnold ordered the state on Friday to return the full amount to Phil Parhamovich, an unexpected move in a case that began more than eight months ago. The First Judicial District Court in Wyoming confirmed the judge’s order.
The ruling hasn't been made available so it's unclear what the legal rationale for the release was -- other than possibly "this is bullshit." With a signed waiver and the disavowal of ownership, it should have been open and shut. Perhaps the state could find nothing to connect the money to illegal activity or screwed up somewhere procedurally. All that really matters to the victim of Wyoming's thieving cops is his money will be returned to him.