War on Drugs

Cops Steal $91,800 From a Musician, Claiming He Gave It to Them

Wyoming's roadside waivers are a thin disguise for highway robbery.


Institute for Justice

According to the story the Wyoming Attorney General's Office is telling, Phil Parhamovich was moved during a traffic stop last March to donate $91,800, his life savings, to the state's Division of Criminal Investigation to help it wage the war on drugs. Parhamovich's version is rather more plausible: He says state police took his money after pressuring him to sign a "waiver" that circumvented even the limited protections offered by Wyoming's civil asset forfeiture law. Today Parhamovich is in state court, trying to get his money back with help from the Institute for Justice, which argues that Wyoming's roadside waivers are a thin disguise for highway robbery.

Parhamovich, a Wisconsin musician, was on his way to a gig in Salt Lake City on March 13 when a state trooper, Jeramy Pittsley, pulled him over on Interstate 80 in Laramie County for failing to buckle his seat belt. The stop turned into an interrogation, during which Pittsley asked, "Is there anything in your vehicle I should know about, such as guns, drugs, large amounts of cash, methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, LSD, etc.?" Parhamovich, startled that Pittsley suddenly suspected him of criminal activity, said no.

Pittsley walked a drug-sniffing dog around Parhamovich's minivan. "At first," the Institute for Justice says, "the dog seemed to find nothing interesting about the vehicle. Then, the trooper gestured with what appeared to be a hidden tennis ball, and the dog responded." The cops used that "alert" as an excuse to search the minivan, and eventually they found $91,800 inside a speaker cabinet. The cops were so excited by their discovery that they high-fived each other. The windfall also apparently made them forget that there was no trace of the drugs that Pittsley's dog supposedly had detected.

Parhamovich had earned the money legally, largely by fixing guitars and selling old farmhouses after renovating them. He brought the cash with him when he went on tour because he worried that it wouldn't be safe at his apartment in Madison. He planned to used $80,000 of it for a down payment on a Madison recording studio he was in the process of buying.

Now the troopers were insinuating that there was something illegal about carrying that much cash. There isn't, but Parhamovich was so intimidated that he initially denied the money was his, saying the speakers and the cash belonged to a friend. Despite that denial, the troopers presented him with a waiver saying, "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." Because he had the impression that he would not be free to go otherwise, Parhamovich signed the form without understanding the legal consequences.

The waiver Parhamovich signed is aimed at getting around Wyoming's civil forfeiture rules, which the state legislature had tightened just a year before. The 2016 reforms included a requirement that law enforcement agencies prove seized property is connected to a crime by "clear and convincing evidence," a tougher test than the "preponderance of the evidence" standard it replaced. The legislation also mandated a probable cause hearing within 30 days of a seizure, required that property owners receive 15 days' notice of forfeiture hearings, and allowed judges to award them damages and attorney's fees when they successfully challenge forfeitures. But because Parhamovich "voluntarily" signed away his property, the cops did not have to worry about any of that. I.J. notes that Virginia and Texas have banned such waivers, recognizing that a motorist's consent in a situation like this is given under duress.

Four days after the traffic stop, Parhamovich sent a letter to the Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Attorney General's Office, seeking to rescind his waiver and asking to be informed of any relevant legal proceedings. The Attorney General's Office received three pieces of mail from Parhamovich in March and April, including documents verifying the sources of his money and his planned purchase of the recording studio. Parhamovich also submitted an electronic public records request. Each time he included his contact information, and he got two letters back from the Attorney General's Office, which nevertheless failed to notify him of its May 4 petition seeking to keep his money or the July 5 hearing at which the petition was granted. Instead the office placed a notice in a Wyoming newspaper, where Parhamovich, who lives in Wisconsin, would be sure not to see it.

Parhamovich is now seeking a new hearing, one that he will actually have an opportunity to attend. He also argues that his traffic stop was illegally extended, since Trooper Pittsley had no reasonable grounds to suspect he was involved in criminal activity; that he was entrapped by "misleading and compound questions that wrongly suggested it was illegal for him to be traveling with cash"; and that Pittsley and his colleagues did not have probable cause to search his minivan or seize his money.

Like other cases of highway robbery by police officers, Parhamovich's experience illustrates not only the perversity of civil forfeiture and the immorality of the war on drugs but the peril of giving cops license to harass and search motorists at will. If Wyoming did not have a paternalistic law authorizing it, Pittsley would not have been allowed to pull Parhamovich over for failing to buckle his seat belt, a quintessentially self-regarding decision. If the Supreme Court had not ruled that a canine's olfactory inspection does not count as a search under the Fourth Amendment and let the dogs out during routine traffic stops, Pittsley would not have been allowed to walk his dog around Parhamovich's minivan. If the Court had not ruled (unanimously!) that an alert by such a dog provides probable cause for a search, Pittsley and his accomplices would not have found Parhamovich's money. The sort of conscious cuing alleged by Parhamovich is just one reason the Court's faith in police dogs is misplaced.

These are the decisions that have created a society where armed agents of the state detain and search people on the slightest pretext, stealing whatever money they happen to find.

Update: At the hearing on Friday, Vox's German Lopez reports, a judge ordered the return of Parhamovich's money.