Phil Parhamovich went to court in Wyoming on Friday, hoping to convince a judge that he deserved a new hearing on the question of whether the state gets to keep the $91,800 that police took from him during a traffic stop last March. Instead the judge ordered the return of Parhamovich's money after he testified that it belonged to him and he had no desire to surrender it. Attorney General Peter Michael said his office will return the money rather than pursue the case further.
Parhamovich, a Wisconsin musician, was on tour when he was pulled over on March 13 for failing to fasten his seat belt. A purported alert by a drug-sniffing dog led to a search of his minivan, during which the cops found no drugs but did discover cash hidden inside a speaker cabinet, which Parhamovich had brought with him because he worried that it wouldn't be safe at his apartment in Madison. He planned to use most of the money as a down payment on a Madison recording studio. Because the police falsely insinuated that carrying large amounts of cash is illegal, Parhamovich initially said the speaker and the money belonged to a friend. The cops pressured him into signing a waiver "giving" the money to the state Department of Criminal Investigation.
The Institute for Justice, which represented Parhamovich, argues that police use roadside waivers like the one he signed are a thin disguise for highway robbery, bypassing even the modest protections that property owners have under Wyoming's civil forfeiture law. "Phil would have lost his life savings over the fact that he didn't wear a seat belt while driving through Wyoming," I.J. attorney Dan Alban told the Associated Press. "That's outrageous and needs to end."
The unexpectedly quick resolution of the case was yet another victory against civil forfeiture abuse for I.J., which filed motions on Parhamovich's behalf just two weeks before Friday's order. Over the years, the libertarian law firm has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of standing up to money-grabbing bullies. Here are half a dozen other cases in which I.J. clients got their property back after the organization publicized their predicaments:
Christos and Markela Sourovelis
Philadelphia police seized the couple's house in May 2014 after their son was caught selling $40 worth of marijuana outside it. I.J. filed a lawsuit on their behalf that August, and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office dropped the forfeiture case in December 2014 after it attracted national publicity.
The I.J. lawsuit, which is an ongoing class action, argues that Philadelphia's forfeiture practices are unconstitutional. Last July, as C.J. Ciaramella noted here, the city tried to settle the case by suggesting a judicial order that would prevent it from using forfeiture proceeds to fund law enforcement activities. "I think it's commendable that the city and D.A. want to stop this blatantly unconstitutional practice," I.J. attorney Darpana Sheth said, "but that does not end either this claim or the lawsuit because it does nor provide our clients or the 20,000 property owners they represent with full relief."
The Internal Revenue Service seized $33,000 from the Iowa restaurateur's bank account, alleging that she had deliberately kept her deposits below $10,000 to avoid triggering a federal reporting requirement, an offense known as "structuring." The government did not claim that Hinders had anything to hide through this purported scheme, since her money came from a legal business. But as far as the IRS was concerned, the fact that her cash was implicated in structuring was enough to make it ripe for forfeiture.
In December 2014, just a few weeks after The New York Times ran a front-page story highlighting the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Cole filed a motion saying the case should be dismissed to conserve judicial resources. The publicity generated by I.J.'s advocacy also prompted the IRS and the Justice Department to announce that they would no longer pursue forfeiture in structuring cases that do not involve any other criminal behavior.
The feds seized $107,000 from the North Carolina convenience store owner's bank account based purely on structuring allegations, then refused to return it even after the IRS and DOJ said they would eschew such cases. In March 2015 a federal prosecutor offered to return half the money, warning McLellan's lawyer that calling public attention to the case would only make the government less inclined to reach a settlement.
Two months later, the feds finally agreed to give McLellan his money back but without interest and without compensating him for the $22,000 he had paid his lawyer and a forensic accountant before I.J. took the case pro bono. In February 2016 a federal judge completed McLellan's vindication by dismissing the forfeiture case with prejudice, making him eligible to recover his costs and the interest on his purloined savings under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.
Randy and Karen Sowers
In yet another structuring case, the subject of a 2016 Reason feature story, the IRS cleaned out the Maryland dairy farmers' bank account in 2012. The government, which conceded the money was legally earned, seized $63,000 but eventually agreed to return about $33,000 of it. Sowers told a congressional subcommittee that the federal prosecutor handling the case initially seemed inclined to return more than that, but his attitude changed after Sowers told his story to the Baltimore City Paper.
I.J. filed a petition on the couple's behalf in July 2015, noting that "the government has never even alleged that Randy and Karen did anything unlawful," aside from making deposits of less than $10,000. The petition described the couple's agreement to let the government keep $29,500 of their money as accepting "an offer they could not afford to refuse" and cited congressional criticism of the case. The petition was supported by nine members of the House subcommittee that heard Sowers' testimony.
At the same hearing, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen had testified that "anyone who…was not engaged in processing and laundering illegally gained funds who ended up stuck in the system…deserve[s] an apology." If so, I.J. argued, how can the government let such injustices stand? "If it would be wrong to take the money today," I.J. attorney Robert Everett Johnson said in a February 16 letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, "it is equally wrong to keep it." Apparently Lynch agreed, or at least worried that most people would draw that conclusion. In June 2016 the government finally agreed to return the rest of the Sowers' money.
In 2015 the Florida college student lost $11,000 at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to cops who said his luggage smelled like marijuana. Clarke admitted to smoking pot but denied that he had ever sold drugs, saying the money came from legal wages, financial aid, and family gifts.
The forfeiture complaint was, as usual in such cases, maddeningly vague, claiming the money "was furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for controlled substances, was proceeds traceable to such an exchange, or was intended to be used to facilitate the illegal sale of narcotics." Although the cops found no drugs in Clarke's bags or on his person and did not charge him with a crime, the pot smell and the large amount of cash were enough to make the money disappear.
In November 2016, after I.J. took on Clarke's case, the government agreed to return his money. With interest.
Customs and Border Protection officers seized the Kentucky businessman's pickup truck at the Mexican border in 2015, arguing that a few rounds of handgun ammunition Serrano had forgotten to remove from the center console implicated the vehicle in international arms smuggling. As in the other cases, no charges were filed against Serrano.
The case dragged on for two years without a hearing while Serrano continued to pay for insurance and registration of a truck he could no longer use, on top of the bill for renting replacement transportation and the $3,805 bond required to challenge the forfeiture. Last October, about a month after I.J. filed a lawsuit on Serrano's behalf, arguing that the delay in processing the case was unconstitutional, he was suddenly told he could come pick up his truck.