Wisconsin musician Phil Parhamovich had his life savings seized by police while driving through Wyoming in 2017. He fought back in court and recovered his money, and Wyoming has since passed some reforms to the law. (Institute for Justice)

Laws have improved in Wyoming since musician Phil Parhamovich passed through the state on tour in 2017. Unfortunately, the same money-making scheme that allowed the government to go after his life savings without arresting, charging or convicting him of a crime remains in effect.

Wyoming lawmakers passed modest reforms in 2018 following the incident, which drew national media coverage, yet the state rejected more meaningful protections for innocent property owners in 2019.

Parhamovich’s ordeal started with a traffic stop on Interstate 80 near Cheyenne after a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper saw him driving without a seatbelt. Following a roadside interrogation and drug dog alert, the trooper and another officer from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations conducted a warrantless search inside Parhamovich’s minivan without his consent.

The officers found no narcotics, weapons or contraband of any type. But they did discover $91,800 stored in a speaker cabinet in the back of the vehicle. Prior to leaving his Wisconsin home, Parhamovich had signed a contract to buy a recording studio in Madison, and he had brought cash for a down payment and other expenses with him on tour.

The money had come from long hours of honest labor restoring and selling historic farmhouses, and carrying the cash was not a crime. Yet the officers pressured Parhamovich to sign a roadside waiver, under what he said was duress, releasing his ownership of the money.

The government then claimed the property as abandoned using civil forfeiture, a process that allows the state to take and permanently keep assets without proving anything in criminal court. 

Rather than accept the violation of his rights, Parhamovich fought back and recovered his money with representation from our organization, the nonprofit Institute for Justice.

Despite the constitutional problems with civil forfeiture, advocates defend the practice as an important law enforcement tool. They say civil forfeiture lowers crime and cripples cartels, keeping drugs off the street. Yet they rarely provide evidence. They merely repeat the same talking points and ask people to trust them.

New research from the Institute for Justice moves beyond the emotion of the debate and looks at state-level data using empirical methods. “Does Forfeiture Work? Evidence from the States,” published Feb. 10, shows that government cash grabs simply do not perform as advertised.

When forfeiture activities increase, police do not solve crimes at higher rates, and drug use does not drop. Rather than boosting public safety, the scheme merely boosts revenue for its own sake.

The perverse incentives to patrol for profit are particularly bad in Wyoming, which allows police and prosecutors to keep up to 100% of the assets they forfeit. During the 20-year span from 2000 to 2019, revenue from the practice topped $11 million in Wyoming.

Temptations to exploit forfeiture could get even worse in 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The Institute for Justice study, which analyzes nearly a decade of data from five states that provide necessary reporting detail, shows that forfeiture activity increases with economic downturns — when agencies are most desperate for budget supplements.

The pressure to self-fund skews law-enforcement priorities. Some police activities are less lucrative than others, but this should not influence the way officers serve their communities. Police who interact with the public should ask, “What is your emergency?” not “What are your assets?”

Support civic discourse — donate to WyoFile today.

Wyoming residents deserve better. Fortunately, state lawmakers can provide relief in 2021 by repealing civil forfeiture once and for all and replacing it with criminal forfeiture. Government agents still could take and keep assets, but they would have to link the property to illegal behavior proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court.

As a further safeguard, the law should direct proceeds away from law enforcement. The same people who control forfeiture should not be able to profit from their decisions about what property to seize and what cases to prosecute.

These reforms make sense. Parhamovich eventually got his money back, but other innocent property owners remain at risk in Wyoming as long as police have incentives to patrol for profit.

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. The timeline here is very recent, perhaps a little too recent as to legislation and the politics surrounding.

    The Wyoming Legislature considered asset forfeiture reform from 2014-2016. The joint judiciary committee sponsored a bill to implement criminal forfeiture (i.e., no forfeiture of alleged drug property until after one is convicted of a drug crime) in 2015, Senate File 14 (“Asset forfeiture-2.”). The bill passed the Senate 23-6 (1 excused) and the House 54-6. Governor Mead exercised one of the few vetoes of his two terms, and the Senate did not override it.

    The following year, a substantial reform passed unanimously and was signed into law. It included due process, most importantly the requirement that the government prove that property is drug-related by a clear and convincing standard of proof. (Senate File 46, 2016.) This was in line with a recommendation in the first edition of “Policing for Profit” published by the Institute for Justice in 2010.

    Following this reform, the law also requires a hearing within 30 days of a seizure in which the government must at least show probable cause. Previously, and very disturbingly, the Attorney General’s office would wait for up to a year following seizure before even filing a forfeiture action. This part of the reform was probably very helpful to Mr. Parhamovich and his counsel. His was not the first or last case since the 2016 reform in which a Wyoming judge has found no probable cause to seize cash simply because it is cash.

    Cash and legal property shouldn’t be baselessly seized in the first place, and criminal forfeiture should replace civil forfeiture in Wyoming. But those seeking to make this happen–whether as citizens or professionals–should know its legislative history. Moreover, the AG’s office runs all of the asset forfeiture cases, and files are kept on each case; an assessment should be made comparing cases since the 2016 amendments to years before that (I have a pretty good summary of those files, 2008-2013). There’s no easier way to lose than to try and substitute facts with righteous zeal. (I *may* know a thing or two about losing that way.)

  2. Wow. Didn’t even realize this existed. Thank you for this important article. Have any law enforcement or political leaders responded to the call to eliminate civil forfeiture?

  3. This is shameful. Wyoming must change it’s laws and policies to eliminate this type of behavior, I have heard of this before from other innocent people. This in Wyoming not the mafia.

  4. This article is spot-on. In Texas it’s worse; there, the law gives police and prosecutors generous rewards for seizing people’s property—without even having to prove the owner committed any crime. And the law makes it so hard for owners to fight for the return of their property that many give up without even trying. Texas law enforcement agencies are increasingly profiting from this power of “civil forfeiture.” You don’t believe me? Read “Forfeiting Justice.”

  5. There is no “rest of the story” here. I helped Mr. Alban as the local attorney in Cheyenne. We represented Mr. Parhamovich pro bono –for free– because it was the right thing to do and because what happened to him should never happen to anyone. It was, as you say, appalling. Mr. Alban’s public interest group investigated and confirmed the facts, including how Parhamovich acquired the funds, before we ever filed to get the money back.

    I fully understand the skepticism. Most of us don’t carry that kind of cash. That skepticism can be amplified to equate with “guilt” in some jaded minds accustomed to encounters involving criminal activity. Yet, it is this presumption of wrongdoing based on the perfectly legal possession of cash –this notion that there must be a nefarious explanation– that leads to unwarranted roadside cash seizures to begin with. Sometimes it is as simple as “we found money, we take money, now you have to take us to court to get your money back”, even though you “did nothing wrong other than have money”.

    The policy issue is whether to allow the government and its agents to simply assume the worst, seize a person’s cash (or intimidate them into “donating” it by suggesting they will be arrested and their trip interrupted), or, on the other hand, require actual information that the cash is connected to criminal activity before seizing it. Only the latter is consistent with the constitutional presumption of innocence and the right to possess property. As Dan and Daryl suggest, the government agencies are afraid that if you require before-the-seizure evidence of wrongdoing consistent with citizen freedoms, the money will go down the road, forever depriving the agency of its “reward.” Perhaps for some, it is that prospect that keeps them up at night. One helpful incremental reform would be to alter this incentive by making any cash forfeitures go to the general fund rather than to the seizing agency. This perverse incentive is not just a Wyoming issue.

    Mr. Parhamovich’s relief at securing the return of his life savings to buy the recording studio was something to behold. But he never should have been put through the ordeal in the first place.

  6. I just can’t help but wonder if there is a Paul Harvey type “The Rest of the Story” behind this. That being said, if it is truly as represented here, this is absolutely an appalling policy.
    I just have a very hard time believing it is as simple as “we found money, we take money, now you have to take us to court to get your money back”, even though you “did nothing wrong other than have money”. It just makes no sense to me that anybody with any sense of moral compass would take part in such a policy. Somebody, somewhere along the chain would have made a big stink about this because they were loosing sleep at night. Nope … I’m not buying it.

    1. “Not buying it”?! Check the links to the news story. Or, make a phone call to the Wyo Highway Patrol to ask if this was indeed the policy. The answer is: Yes, it was and still is among many local police departments in Wyoming as well as many other states. Honestly.

    2. You’re “not buying it” because it didn’t happen to you. Why not traverse I-80 with say $5000 in cash and call the state police, describe your car and tell them you have $5000 and see what happens?

      You’re not buying it cause you haven’t bothered to read the dozens of stories of “asset forfeiture” by police across the US. It’s also called “Policing for Profit” and it’s very real.

      Let us know how your trip along I-80 goes ok?