Phil Parhamovich is getting his $91,800 in cash back — just hours after Vox broke the story of how the Wyoming Highway Patrol seized the money without charging him with a serious crime.
“My gut has been clenched for a long time. I feel like it is still going to take some time to unwind and unclench,” Parhamovich said. “But I feel incredible. It hasn’t even sunk in yet.” He thanked the Institute for Justice, an advocacy group, for taking on his case and Vox for reporting the story.
Parhamovich was stopped in March this year while traveling on the I-80 in Wyoming during a concert tour with his band, the Dirt Brothers. 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. According to Parhamovich, police pushed him to sign the waiver after he said the money was not his, following aggressive questioning that he said made him fear that carrying that much cash is illegal. (It is not.)
Parhamovich intends to use the money as a down payment to buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin, called Smart Studios, where Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins recorded songs. Without the cash, Parhamovich was worried that the deal for the studio could fall through after a nine-month lease expired. But now he’s able to move forward with closing the deal.
Parhamovich and Anya Bidwell, one of his attorneys with the Institute for Justice, showed up at a Friday court hearing not quite sure what to expect. They were met by legislators from Wyoming, who had read Vox’s story and reached out to the Institute for Justice to see what they could do to help. According to Bidwell and one of the state legislators who was present, the judge agreed that if Parhamovich was willing to testify that the money was his, he would order the state to give the money back. When Parhamovich agreed to that, the judge ruled in his favor.
Parhamovich should get his money back in the next few weeks, Bidwell said.
The case was similar to other stories that have come out over the past few years about police abusing what’s called civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize and absorb private property, from cash to cars to boats, without ever charging the owner with a crime. To do this under civil forfeiture, police only need probable cause to believe the property is linked to criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property as profit: either through state programs or under a federal program known as “equitable sharing” that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.
Critics have long decried civil forfeiture for creating a perverse incentive for law enforcement to essentially police for profit.
Parhamovich’s case was unique in that police seemed to bypass civil forfeiture law — including reforms enacted by Wyoming in 2016 — by getting him to sign a waiver that supposedly gave up his interest in the cash. Despite the waiver, the state will now be forced to give Parhamovich his money back.
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael responded to a request for comment after the court hearing, claiming that the state perceived Parhamovich’s cash as “abandoned.”
“When a person denies ownership of property, Wyoming’s abandoned property statute is triggered,” he wrote in an email. “If that person later changes his claim, the statute requires a court proceeding to resolve the inconsistency.”
He added, “I asked my staff to check our office’s involvement in cases of law enforcement possession of such abandoned property. An initial check indicates only about 20 cases in the last five years, and this is likely the only case where a person denied ownership and then reversed course. In such a rare case, as I said above, the statute requires a judicial decision. So, as far as I can tell, the current statute provided protection for Mr. Parhamovich in his rare case.”
This ignores, however, that state law enforcement officials held at least one court hearing over the cash earlier this year without notifying Parhamovich, even after Parhamovich asked them to keep him in the loop. That suggests that state officials were not taking Parhamovich’s requests seriously — at least until the Institute for Justice got involved and Vox reported on the case.
While Parhamovich and his attorneys were celebratory following the judge’s decision on Friday, Bidwell offered a cautionary note.
“Not everybody can find the Institute for Justice, and not everyone can just raise hell about this kind of stuff,” she told me. “So even though today’s hearing was very successful, it still doesn’t remedy the bigger issue. Civil forfeiture is still a problem. They shouldn’t be able to take anybody’s property without accusing them of a crime.”
For more on Parhamovich’s case, read Vox’s full story.