The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the Wyoming legislature and has now been signed into law. It will come into effect on July 1 and is designed to stop abuses of civil asset forfeiture law.
The change in the law comes after the story broke about how musician Phil Parhamovitch had $91,800 in cash seized by Wyoming police and his subsequent legal battle to retrieve his life savings.
State Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-District 45) who championed the legislation said he “would never have introduced this bill” had he not read about Parhamovitch’s case.
On March 13, 2017, Phil was traveling from his home in Wisconsin to Utah. He did not trust financial institutions and so kept his life savings with him rather than leave the money behind in his apartment. He intended to use the $91,800 he was carrying as a down payment on a music studio.
He was stopped by a state trooper near Cheyenne, Wyoming because he was not wearing his seatbelt. The officer asked Phil to leave his vehicle and began asking about his band.
Phil complied with the officer’s requests but was surprised when the officer asked him the following question: “Is there anything in your vehicle that I should know about, such as guns, drugs, large amounts of cash, amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, LSD, etc.?” Phil answered “No.”
As the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) notes, questions such as this are intended to be confusing “because they group perfectly legal activities — like carrying large amounts of cash — with illegal ones — like trafficking in illegal drugs. Questions like these are also designed to mislead by suggesting that carrying large amounts of cash is illegal.”
The police searched Phil’s car and, on finding the cash, Phil panicked. He said the money belonged to a friend. The police pressured him into signing a waiver handing over the money to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and renouncing all rights to it.
“I asked them a bunch of times… what happens if I don’t sign it, but I couldn’t get a clear answer and was extremely worried,” explains Phil. The police took Phil’s money and let him go after giving him a $25 fine.
Several days later, Phil wrote to the DCI explaining he was rescinding his waiver. He provided documentation that the money had been lawfully obtained and that it was his. Instead of returning his money, the DCI filed a petition that it be regarded as abandoned property. Without informing Phil, they held a hearing on July 5.
It was at this point Phil began working with the Institute for Justice to fight his case. The IJ saw in Phil’s situation a clear abuse of civil asset forfeiture law. In a court date set for December 2017, Phil’s attorneys at the IJ argued his rights had been violated during the search in March. Ultimately, Phil won the case, and his money was returned to him.
On hearing the bill had been signed into law, Phil issued a statement saying it is “a great relief to know that no one will have to go through what I went through.”
“Due process doesn’t happen on the side of a road, and we’re pleased to see Wyoming ban this abusive tactic,” says Dan Alban, one of Phil’s lawyers, “but the state’s civil forfeiture laws remain unchanged and still need major reform.”
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