Innocent Musician’s Life Savings Seized by Law Enforcement

Institute for Justice · December 1, 2017

Arlington, Va.—Carrying large amounts of cash is not a crime, yet state and local law enforcement agencies are finding ways to seize and keep cash without charging anyone with a crime. Wyoming law enforcement officials are pressuring motorists into signing pre-printed waivers that “give” their lawfully earned cash to law enforcement and waive their right to formal forfeiture proceedings under the state’s civil forfeiture statute. Phil Parhamovich had his life savings seized during a traffic stop on I-80 near Cheyenne, Wyoming, even though he was not accused of—or charged with—a crime. Now Phil has teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to get his money back and to prevent law enforcement from pressuring drivers to sign roadside waivers forfeiting their property.

Phil is a Wisconsin-based musician who spent years saving up $91,800 to make a down payment for a recording studio. In March 2017, Phil was pulled over by the Wyoming Highway Patrol for not wearing his seatbelt and allegedly not staying in his lane. Several law enforcement officers searched Phil’s minivan and found no drugs or anything illegal—just the life savings Phil brought with him for safekeeping.

“Courts have recognized that carrying large amounts of cash by itself is not evidence of criminal activity, but too many law enforcement agencies still find ways to seize cash, treating citizens like ATMs,” explained IJ Attorney Dan Alban. “No American should lose their property without being convicted of a crime.”

After aggressively questioning Phil, officers pressured him to sign the waiver form “giving” them his money. Bizarrely, the waiver states: “I . . . the owner of the property or currency described below, desire to give this property or currency, along with any and all interests and ownership that I may have in it, to the State of Wyoming, Division of Criminal Investigation, to be used for narcotics law enforcement purposes.” At least two states—Texas and Virginia—have banned law enforcement from using such roadside waivers to pressure motorists to sign away their property.

“Nobody freely chooses to just ‘give’ their life savings to the police during a traffic stop—and law enforcement pressuring motorists to do just that is highway robbery,” explained IJ attorney Anya Bidwell. “Last year, the Wyoming Legislature passed modest forfeiture reforms, but law enforcement is using roadside waivers to dodge those laws.”

After signing the waiver, Phil was sent on his way. Phil then spent weeks trying to dispute and revoke the waiver and get his money back, asking to be notified of any court hearings. But Wyoming officials never sent Phil notice regarding the court proceedings to forfeit his life savings, even though they knew exactly where he lived and how to contact him. Phil is now in the fight of his life to get his money back and prevent law enforcement from doing this to anyone else.

“This has been a nightmare for me. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” said Phil Parhamovich. “I am fighting with the Institute for Justice to make sure that law enforcement agencies—not just in Wyoming, but in every state—cannot take innocent people’s money for no reason.”