Wyoming Bans Practice That Police Used to Take Innocent Man’s $91,800

Wyoming – Three months after Vox broke the story about how Wyoming law enforcement wrongly took $91,800 from an out-of-state traveler during a traffic stop, state legislators have changed the law to try to prevent something like this from happening again.

Democratic state Rep. Charles Pelkey told me that he “would never have introduced this bill had I not read your story.” The measure passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature, and it was signed by Republican Gov. Matt Mead last week.

Vox was tipped off about the story by the Institute for Justice, an advocacy group that works against wrongful police seizures of cash and property, particularly civil forfeiture. The group represented Phil Parhamovich of Wisconsin, helping him get his money back from Wyoming law enforcement at a court hearing just hours after Vox’s story was published.

Parhamovich was stopped in March 2017 while traveling on I-80 in Wyoming during a concert tour with his band, the Dirt Brothers. Parhamovich, who has no criminal record, was not accused of or charged with a serious crime; he only got a $25 ticket for improperly wearing his seat belt and a warning for “lane use.”

But Wyoming law enforcement officers found and eventually seized the $91,800 in cash, as it was hidden in a speaker cabinet — by getting Parhamovich, under what he says was duress, to sign away his interest in the money through a waiver. According to Parhamovich, police pushed him to sign the waiver after he said the money was not his, following aggressive questioning that he said made him fear that carrying that much cash is illegal. (It is not.)

The new law, which takes effect on July 1, bans officers from getting people to sign waivers that give up their rights to property, including cash, without a hearing and without establishing probable cause. Any waivers in violation of the law are declared “null and void.”

The waivers provided a loophole around previous reforms

Parhamovich got his money back following a court hearing in December, where he and his attorney, the Institute for Justice’s Anya Bidwell, were met by legislators from Wyoming, who had read Vox’s story and reached out to the Institute for Justice to see what they could do to help. According to Bidwell and one of the state legislators who was present, the judge agreed that if Parhamovich was willing to testify that the money was his, he would order the state to give the money back. When Parhamovich agreed, the judge ruled in his favor.

Parhamovich said in a statement that it’s “a great relief to know that no one will have to go through what I went through. Obviously our police system is in need of many reforms but this is a step in the right direction.”

Parhamovich intends to use the money as a down payment to buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin, called Smart Studios, where Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins recorded songs. Without the cash, Parhamovich was worried that the deal for the studio could fall through after a temporary lease expired. But now he’s able to move forward with closing the deal.

The case was similar to other stories that have come out over the past few years about police abusing what’s called civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize and absorb private property, from cash to cars to boats, without ever charging the owner with a crime. To do this under civil forfeiture, police only need probable cause to believe the property is linked to criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as “equitable sharing” that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.

Critics have long decried civil forfeiture for creating a perverse incentive for law enforcement to essentially police for profit.

Parhamovich’s case was unique in that police seemed to bypass civil forfeiture law — including reforms enacted by Wyoming in 2016 — by getting him to sign a waiver that supposedly gave up his interest in the cash. The new law effectively closes the loophole.

The Institute for Justice cheered the move in a statement but argued that Wyoming still needs further reforms to prevent more abuses of forfeiture in the future.

“Due process doesn’t happen on the side of a road and we’re pleased to see Wyoming ban this abusive tactic,” Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban said. “But the state’s civil forfeiture laws remained unchanged, and still need major reform. No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime.”

Source: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/20/17142526/wyoming-waiver-forfeiture-phil-parhamovich