Carrying cash is not a crime, yet too often the government treats it like one. Consider the story of IJ client Phil Parhamovich, who lived a months-long nightmare trying to get his lawfully earned life savings of $91,800 back after law enforcement seized it during a routine traffic stop that resulted in no charges or even accusations. It was not until Phil contacted IJ that things changed dramatically—and fast. The same day we stepped into court, the judge ordered the return of Phil’s money.
Phil is a musician from Wisconsin who was traveling through Wyoming on a short tour when he was pulled over by the Highway Patrol for not wearing his seat belt. Phil had brought his life savings with him for safekeeping—money he had saved up from renovating and selling farmhouses and refurbishing guitars and other musical equipment. He planned to use the money as a down payment on a famous recording studio in Madison.
But Phil’s plans came to a screeching halt on I-80 when officers searched his car, finding no drugs or anything illegal—only Phil’s life savings. After officers implied that it was a crime to be traveling with so much cash, Phil initially said the money belonged to a friend. The officers then pressured him to sign a pre-printed roadside waiver “giving” his life savings to Wyoming law enforcement. Alone on the side of the road and afraid that the alternative was to go to jail, Phil signed the waiver and was sent on his way.
Phil’s case has sparked strong interest in legislative reform in Wyoming. Several legislators who attended the hearing were concerned about the use of roadside waivers and vowed to ban their use in Wyoming.
A few days later, Phil began writing letters to the Wyoming attorney general’s office, revoking “his gift,” claiming the money and asking for notice of any court proceedings. Phil even sent financial documents—at the request of the AG’s office—proving he had lawfully earned the money.
Nevertheless, Wyoming filed a case to forfeit the money as abandoned property, claiming it could not locate the real owner. Even worse, it never sent Phil any notice about the case, so he did not find out about it until after a hearing had been held. Civil forfeiture always violates due process, but this was ridiculous.
IJ’s litigation cavalry rode to the rescue, filing several motions and appearing with Phil at a “default hearing” in Cheyenne on December 1. That same day, Vox ran an exclusive feature about the case that several Wyoming state legislators read before calling the AG’s office to express their outrage. Five state legislators even attended Phil’s hearing.
We expected the hearing to be about whether Phil had “defaulted” by not appearing previously. However, the government conceded that Phil should have received notice but did not. Instead of setting a trial date, the judge decided to hear Phil’s testimony and make a ruling about the money right there on the spot. After Phil testified about the traffic stop and how he had earned the money, the judge found his testimony credible and ordered that all of the money be returned. Phil got his $91,800 check from Wyoming on December 23, just in time for the holidays.
Phil’s case has sparked strong interest in legislative reform in Wyoming. Several legislators who attended the hearing were concerned about the use of roadside waivers and vowed to ban their use in Wyoming. We will work with state legislators to pass a bill to improve transparency with reporting requirements about forfeiture and how forfeited money is spent. We also plan to leverage this victory to stop this practice not just in Wyoming but across the country. We are hopeful that Phil’s story and these initial reforms will be the beginning of the end for state-sponsored highway robbery in Wyoming.