Getting pulled over for not properly wearing his seat belt almost cost Phil Parhamovich his lifelong dream—and $91,800.
Parhamovich is a musician who hoped to one day buy a famous recording studio in Madison,Wisconsin to help further his music career. For years, he had been working long hours at multiple jobs to save up enough money to put a down payment on his dream. Now the studio was up for sale, and Parhamovich was ready to make his dream a reality.
But while driving through Wyoming on tour last March, Parhamovich was pulled over for “improper lane and seat belt use.”
Then the officer started asking questions. “With just about everything I answered, he discounted [and] was acting like whatever I was saying wasn’t true,” Parhamovich told Vox. The officer asked if he was carrying drugs, a weapon or large amounts of cash in his car.
Parhamovich was carrying cash—nearly $92,000 stashed inside a speaker. Carrying large amounts of cash isn’t against the law, but Parhamovich didn’t know that. He says the officer strongly implied that it was.
Under pressure and concerned about what might happen, Parhamovich lied. The police brought in a drug-sniffing dog who “alerted,” allowing officers to search the car without a warrant. They found the cash. Parhamovich said it wasn’t his—that the money belonged to a friend.
That’s when the officers pulled out a document they conveniently had on hand. He hadn’t been charged with any drug-related crimes, but Parhaomvich said one of them told him that in exchange for signing the document “giving” the money to Wyoming to be used “for narcotics law enforcement purposes,” he would be free to go.
When Parhamovich asked what would happen if he didn’t sign, they wouldn’t give him a clear answer.
Panicked and worried he might wind up in prison, Parhamovich signed, an all-too-common reaction in civil asset forfeiture cases. He drove away, $92,000 poorer, with a $25 ticket for not wearing his seatbelt.
A Disappearing Dream
Parhamovich spent the next few months desperately trying to get the money back. He contacted multiple state agencies asking for the cash back. He begged them to keep him aware of any court proceedings so he could show up and sent document after document trying to prove the money was his and was earned legally.
Instead, the state held a hearing without telling him. When no one came to the hearing to claim the money, they moved to make the cash the property of the state of Wyoming.
Parhamovich was able to negotiate a nine-month lease with the owner of the music studio, but without the cash there was no guarantee he would be able to buy the property. If someone else came along with an offer after the lease ended, his dream would be dead.
A Happy Ending
That’s when the Institute for Justice, a law firm that fights government abuse like civil asset forfeiture, got involved. They insisted Parhamovich wasn’t aware of his rights and was under duress when he signed away his cash.
When Parhamovich and his lawyers showed up to court last Friday ready to make their case, they were greeted by several Wyoming legislators. They had read a story Vox had publishedabout the case, and they were ready to help however they could.
During the hearing, the judge simply told Parhamovich that if he was willing to testify the money was his, the judge would order it returned. It’s expected to be back in Parhamovich’s hands in the next couple of weeks.
A Systemic Problem
Parhamovich’s story has a happy ending, but not all victims of forfeiture are so lucky (as we’ve detailed in case after case). Because law enforcement charges the property instead of the person, you don’t need to be convicted—or even charged—for them to steal your stuff.
In 2013, police in Wyoming seized $470,000 from a man they pulled over for speeding. He wasn’t charged with a crime, but officers still took his money and claimed it was used for drugs. He’s been fighting to get it back for years.
Forfeiture laws can be extremely profitable for agencies. Between 2001 and 2014, the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department took in a combined $29 billion from forfeitures. The money is often used to pad law enforcement agencies’ budgets. Forfeited money has even been used by police departments and federal agencies to pay for margarita machines and casino trips.
Lawmakers have taken some steps to try to rein in abusive civil asset forfeiture practices, but agencies are still figuring out creative ways to get around the new rules. Until we overhaul our broken criminal justice system, innocent people will continue to become victims of police departments and federal agencies.
If you’re fed up with civil asset forfeiture, click here to sign the petition.