“It’s been complete hell”: how police used a traffic stop to take $91,800 from an innocent man
The money was supposed to go toward buying a legendary music studio. Now his dreams are on hold.
Phil Parhamovich had been waiting for this moment for a long time. The 50-year-old had spent years restoring and selling houses, cars, and musical instruments, often clocking 12-hour workdays, to save up more than $91,000. And now it was all going to pay off: He would buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin, where Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins recorded songs — not just fulfilling a dream of owning a monument to grunge rock, but also giving him a space to work on his own career as a musician.
Then came the police stop this past March. By the time it was over, police in Wyoming would take all of Parhamovich’s money — the full $91,800. 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 Highway Patrol officers found and eventually seized the $91,800 in cash, as it was hidden in a speaker cabinet — by getting Parhamovich, under what he claims was duress, to sign away his interest in the money through a waiver.
He has since tried to get his money back. But state law enforcement officials have rejected his pleas. Responding to a request for records related to Parhamovich’s case, state officials said they consider the cash “abandoned.” The state has even moved to forfeiture the money without notifying Parhamovich of the relevant court hearing until after it happened.
The traffic stop has completely disrupted Parhamovich’s life. He managed to get a nine-month lease of the studio he wants to buy. But he’s not sure what will happen if he can’t get his money back after nine months — and the realtor said that the primary goal is to sell the property, even if it means selling it to someone else.
“It’s been complete hell,” Parhamovich told me. “I don’t know too many people who put the kind of hours that I do. I don’t say that in an egotistical way at all; I was just working hard. … To just have some police officers take my money, it kills me.”
According to Parhamovich and his attorneys with the advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, this is another classic example of policing for profit and the problems it causes. Police initiated the stop for a minor traffic violation, but quickly escalated it further and further until they took a man’s life savings — all to use that money for their own law enforcement purposes.
We’ve seen cases like this before. Over the past several years, stories have come out of police abusing 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. Concerns about such abuses, including on the same highway Parhamovich drove through, led Wyoming lawmakers to enact stricter requirements for civil forfeiture in 2016. But with the use of a waiver, Parhamovich’s case shows how law enforcement can get around civil forfeiture reforms to continue policing for profit — and escalate even minor traffic stops into a situation in which a person’s entire livelihood is suddenly threatened.
A very expensive traffic stop
Parhamovich is not from Wyoming. He currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. But he was driving down the I-80 in Laramie County, Wyoming, on March 13 during a concert tour for his band, the Dirt Brothers.
According to Parhamovich, it was during this drive — at approximately 6 pm — that an officer from the Wyoming Highway Patrol began following and then stopped him. The officer said the stop was due to Parhamovich’s improper lane and seat belt use. He asked Parhamovich to come back to his squad car, supposedly because he needed time to print out a ticket. Seeing no problem with this, Parhamovich agreed.
From there, the situation escalated. “He started asking me tons of questions,” Parhamovich told me. “With just about everything I answered, he discounted [and] was acting like whatever I was saying wasn’t true.” He added, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been stopped by a very aggressive cop. They just intimidate you with their power.”
At one point, the officer asked Parhamovich if he had a long list of items in his car — specific drugs, a weapon, a large amount of cash, and so on. With the way the question was phrased, Parhamovich said he was worried that answering “yes” would make things worse, since it could wrongfully imply he had illegal drugs in his car. He also became concerned, since he was questioned about cash and illegal drugs at the same time, that it was potentially against the law to carry so much cash at once. (It is not.)
Police brought in a drug-sniffing dog. According to Parhamovich, an officer used a ball to lure the dog to the car and get the canine to act up — and justify a search.
The officers now on the scene found Parhamovich’s cash. Both worried that carrying so much money was illegal and concerned that saying it was his would seem like he lied to cops before, Parhamovich said the money was a friend’s. He declined to say who that friend was — since, in reality, the friend didn’t exist, and the cash was his own.
Parhamovich said he prefers having his cash with him on hand in case opportunities present themselves to buy, for example, new instruments. He took the cash with him on his trip because he was worried about leaving it in the place he was renting back home, where maintenance workers often showed up. So he hid the cash in a speaker, which would always be near his sight and would require some effort to disassemble.
But now police had found it. At this point, officers presented a waiver to Parhamovich. It stated that the signer would “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. If the property or currency cannot be used for narcotics law enforcement purposes, I desire that the property or currency be disposed of as the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation sees fit, in accordance with law.”
Given that Parhamovich was not accused of any drug-related crimes (or any serious crimes at all), it’s not clear why narcotics law enforcement funding is relevant. But it was the out that the officers offered.
“Okay, we’re going to let you go as long as you sign this waiver,” Parhamovich recalled an officer saying.
“I asked them a bunch of times what it was, and what happens if I don’t sign it,” Parhamovich added. “I couldn’t get a clear answer and was extremely worried. So finally I signed it and left.”
With that, he lost the money he had spent several years working for — and felt the dream of purchasing a music studio begin to slip away.
Parhamovich now recognizes he made a huge mistake. But he said he was, frankly, just freaking out at the time: “I definitely felt intimidated and scared and, by that time, confused. … That was the sense in my mind — that somehow I was being framed, that something weird was happening, and that maybe it was illegal to travel with that amount of money, which I hadn’t really thought of prior to that.”
The panicked reaction is typical in these stops, Louis Rulli, an expert on civil forfeiture at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told me. “When a motorist is stopped by police, there’s enormous pressure on them. They make, perhaps, poor decisions on the spot under that pressure and duress, and they’re willing to sign anything to get out of that difficult situation.”
Rulli added, “People often don’t know their rights. Even when they know their rights, it’s very difficult to assert your rights in that kind of confrontation with police on the highway.”
Parhamovich’s attorneys are making the same point in court: that Parhamovich didn’t know his rights, and that he was under duress when he spoke to police and signed the waiver. That should nullify his claims and the waiver — and force the state to return his money to him.
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office said it was not available to comment before this story published, explaining that Attorney General Peter Michael was traveling and no one else in the office could speak to a reporter. The Wyoming Highway Patrol and Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation did not return multiple requests for comment about Parhamovich’s case and the state’s seizure of private property during traffic stops in general. The state also did not fulfill a public records request in time for publication, including a specific request for a recording of the stop.
But in letters to Parhamovich and court filings, state officials have essentially taken what happened at face value: They point out that Parhamovich said the cash wasn’t his, that he signed a waiver giving up the money, and that the “friend” the cash supposedly belongs to hasn’t turned up. So they assume the cash is abandoned and are now absorbing it for their own purposes.
In one letter, John Brodie, senior assistant attorney general, wrote to Parhamovich:
The State disagrees with your characterization of what transpired during the March 13, 2017, traffic stop and will not return the currency to you at this time. First and foremost, at the time of the stop, you denied having any interest in the currency, and also stated you were completely unaware it was hidden inside the portable speaker located in your vehicle. Second, your claim that the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) obtained your waiver of interest in that currency through either improper or illegal means is not accurate.
Since a few days after the stop, Parhamovich began corresponding with Wyoming law enforcement officials — arguing that he signed the waiver under duress, asking for the state to return his money, and, at the very least, requesting that officials notify him if there are relevant court hearings about the cash. Upon request, he also mailed a trove of financial documents — which his lawyers also showed to me — proving he’s made well more than $91,800 in the past several years from restoring and selling houses, cars, and instruments.
Yet Wyoming officials have moved forward with absorbing the cash for themselves. State officials even held a court hearing without notifying Parhamovich of it — even though he repeatedly asked to be kept in the loop, and even though a state filing in the case acknowledged Parhamovich as “a contested owner of the $91,800.00.”
Policing for profit
Rulli, of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was blunt in his assessment of Parhamovich’s case: “This is an indication of serious abuse.”
Parhamovich may not be the only victim of this scheme. Based on public record requests, the state has at least two slightly different forms for the kind of waiver that Parhamovich signed — one for the Wyoming Highway Patrol and one for the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. The state also has a form used to notify people that their property was taken through a more conventional forfeiture process (instead of a waiver in which the owner gives up interest in the property).
“He’s got a waiver on the spot,” Rulli said. “What does that tell you? There’s strategic thinking in advance to get police to use these waivers.”
Parhamovich also isn’t the only person to lose large amounts of cash to police on the I-80 in Wyoming. In November 2013, police seized $470,000 in cash from Robert Miller of Illinois. Miller was pulled over for speeding but faced no criminal charges. The state still has not returned the money, claiming it’s associated with illicit drug trafficking. Miller disputes the claim and is continuing to challenge the forfeiture in court, according to his attorney and court filings.
Stephen Klein, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Liberty Group, has tracked other cases in the state in which police took thousands of dollars from people without charging them for a crime. In one case, a man from Florida lost $17,000 in cash and a .44 caliber pistol; he wasn’t charged with a crime. In another, police pulled over three men traveling from North Carolina to Oregon and seized $7,000 in cash — again, without any criminal charges.
Unlike Parhamovich’s story, these cases typically did not involve a waiver; they were usually standard civil forfeiture cases, in which police can simply seize the property without filing criminal charges. 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 — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — 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, no waiver required.
Still, the other cases and Parhamovich’s follow a similar pattern: Police stop a traveler and take valuable property. “These traffic stops become extended stops in which cash is seized from motorists without any evidence of a crime, without any connection to drug activity,” Rulli said. “It’s the kind of abuse that led the [former] Attorney General Eric Holder to make some reforms. But those have been dialed back by the current attorney general, [Jeff Sessions].”
It’s not just Wyoming. Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow, and Steven Rich uncovered several instances for the Washington Post in which people were pulled over while driving with cash and had their money taken despite little to no proof of a crime. The suspects in these cases were only able to get their property back after lengthy, costly court battles in which they showed they weren’t guilty of anything.
One small Texas town, Tenaha, even used waivers to get drivers to give up private property, echoing Parhamovich’s experience. As one man from Tennessee who was forced to give up jewelry and $8,500 in cash told CNN in 2009, “I was five, six hundred miles from home. I was petrified.”
Law enforcement officials argue that civil forfeiture is necessary to swiftly take property from criminals who would otherwise use it for nefarious purposes. But police also have a personal incentive to seize so much cash and property: The proceeds, or at least most of them, often go back to police departments. “This is policing for profit,” Rulli said. The law “creates a perverse financial incentive for exactly these kinds of abuses.”
It’s potential abuses of civil forfeiture that also led Wyoming to enact reforms in 2016. The changes require law enforcement to show to a judge within 30 days of a seizure that they had probable cause, and increase the burden of proof to forfeiture property from “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”
Klein told me that based on his research into Wyoming’s civil forfeitures, most are likely justified, involving the seizure of property that does seem to be linked to illegal activity and criminal charges. But if that’s the case, he said, it seems there would be little to no harm in requiring the state to file criminal charges — and carry out criminal forfeiture, instead of civil forfeiture — to seize and absorb property.
“Wyoming isn’t really abusing the process the way it’s abused in some other states,” Klein said. “But that also means, what’s the problem with criminal forfeiture? You’re actually pursuing these guys with crimes. So why not get the conviction and then take their assets?”
The waiver that Parhamovich was led to sign, however, offers a way around even reforms requiring criminal charges or convictions: The form explicitly states that it’s not part of a typical forfeiture procedure, and that the property’s owner is effectively gifting it for “narcotics law enforcement purposes.”
Rulli said that this, too, follows a familiar pattern: As states have passed reforms on civil forfeiture, police have looked for ways around the new reforms to seize large amounts of cash. One popular method is to use the federal forfeiture program; since it’s allowed under federal law, it’s outside the purview of most state reforms and creates a loophole for state and local police.
“We will see efforts — because so much money is at stake — to try to bypass state reforms that are intended to protect local citizens,” Rulli predicted.
It’s possible for people to get their property back in these cases. But as Parhamovich’s story shows, it can take time and money. It’s already been more than eight months since he lost his money to police. And now he’s not sure if he’ll be able to get it back before his lease is up — at which point, he may lose the opportunity to buy the music studio he has long wanted to own.
Dreams on hold
Parhamovich spoke to me from Smart Studios, where Nirvana once recorded and which he hopes to eventually buy. With the help of the Institute for Justice, this month he is beginning to fight to get his money back in court. But time is ticking.
“There’s no guarantee at the end of the nine months,” he said. The owner of the studio “could find a new buyer.”
Jon Reske, the realtor for the building, told me that he’s aware of Parhamovich’s situation and has tried to give him some leeway, but the ultimate goal of the building’s investors is to sell the property. If it doesn’t look like Parhamovich can buy the studio at the end of the nine months, Reske said, there are other interested buyers. “If we were to extend the lease, [Parhamovich] would have to show concrete evidence that he can close the deal,” Reske said. Otherwise, the studio will likely go to someone else.
The encounter with police left Parhamovich shaken for some time. He said that prior to the stop, he felt psychologically healthy. After, things changed: “For about two months after that happened, I was looking over my back. I was worried. I was scared. I just felt like something bad was going to happen to me at every turn — because it was so unexpected and so out of left field.”
Parhamovich said that he currently spends as much as 14 hours a day working on his music. He hopes to soon launch an electronic music project, Star Monster, and already DJs when possible. His goal is to obtain management by the end of the year and start getting more gigs.
By itself, Smart Studios is useful for that. “It’s been helping my career out, because people know what it is,” Parhamovich said.
It took a long road for Parhamovich to get to this point. He was in other bands. He once worked for the Cleveland Browns and NFL Europe, making videos for them to make some money. He spent years working independently on other projects, from music to selling houses. This year was supposed to begin a new chapter in his life, with the launch of his electronic music career.
“Now is the time where I’m just finally feeling good enough about it — like it’s a good enough product — that I can put it out there and it will be successful,” Parhamovich said.
That is, if the police get out of his way.