Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most terrifying and out of control aspects of law enforcement today. The original intention of civil asset forfeiture was to allow police to seize property that was used in the commission of a crime, giving them an important weapon against organized street gangs that were supposedly “running amok” back in the 1980s. Regardless of whether it worked back then, it has become a monster, now: Police use it to seize anything of value that they have probable cause to believe was related, however remotely or tangentially, to an alleged crime. People who are eventually found to be completely innocent have, in essence, found themselves robbed by police.
A new example of just how civil asset forfeiture is abused by police has surfaced, this time from the state of Wyoming.
Phil Parhamovich, a 50-year-old musician from Wisconsin, was driving through Wyoming while on tour with his band. He had just saved up enough money to buy a music studio of his own in Madison, Wisconsin, and had $91,800 in cash in his car, hidden in a speaker cabinet.
At 6 pm on March, 13, though, Mr. Parhamovich was pulled over by Wyoming State Police, who claimed the traffic stop was for a pair of minor infractions – improper lane and seat belt use.
The officer, however, began asking questions that were meant to intimidate Mr. Parhamovich, who didn’t have a criminal background. The officer asked Parhamovich if he had any of a long list of items in his car, like drugs or illegal contraband. The list also included a large amount of cash, making Mr. Parhamovich worry. The police even brought in a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on Mr. Parhamovich’s car, even though there were no drugs inside.
The police searched Mr. Parhamovich’s car and found the cash. Then they gave Mr. Parhamovich a curious waiver to sign. It said that he, Phil Parhamovich, did “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.”
“We’re going to let you go as long as you sign this waiver,” Parhamovich recalled one officer saying, with the implication that he would face serious legal trouble if he refused to sign.
So Mr. Parhamovich signed the waiver, the cops took his life’s savings and gave him a $25 ticket for not properly wearing his seat belt, and he drove away.
Civil asset forfeiture allowed the police to strong-arm Mr. Parhamovich into signing away nearly $100,000 in cash. After all, it was the property that was related to what police decided they had probable cause to consider a crime – in Parhamovich’s case, the traffic infraction of not wearing a seatbelt, though police might have thought they had probable cause to think Parhamovich was drug trafficking.
There’s more to Parhamovich’s case – after the forfeiture, he was notified of a related court hearing only after it had happened, but ended up getting his money back when he went public with his story – but the core nugget of it is its exposure of how dangerous civil asset forfeiture has become. It shows the value of “lawyering up” early, and how much you really need a criminal defense attorney at your side.
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