Judge orders Wyoming to return $92,000 seized by officers

A Wyoming judge ordered the state Friday to return nearly $92,000 seized from a musician during a traffic stop that resulted in no criminal charges or even an arrest, according to the man's attorney.

Attorney Dan Alban said Judge Peter Arnold ordered the state on Friday to return the full amount to Phil Parhamovich, an unexpected move in a case that began more than eight months ago. The First Judicial District Court in Wyoming confirmed the judge's order.

Attorney General Peter Michael's office said he wasn't immediately available to comment. Email messages to Michael weren't immediately returned.

Parhamovich told The Associated Press that he was traveling to several performances in Western states and decided to bring his "life savings" because maintenance staff often came into his rented apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. The 50-year-old hid the money inside a speaker he was bringing along on the trip.

While driving near Cheyenne on March 13, officers with the Wyoming Highway Patrol and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations pulled him over. Parhamovich said officers questioned him about whether any drugs or large amounts of cash were in the car and then used a police dog before physically searching through his minivan and finding the money.

Parhamovich said the officers implied that carrying that much cash was illegal. He lied and said it was a friend's.

Parhamovich said officers then told him that he could leave if he signed a form saying he was giving the $91,800 to the investigative agency for "narcotics law enforcement purposes."

"I remember asking them a bunch of times: 'What happens if I don't sign this?'" Parhamovich said. "I couldn't get a straight answer. What I was told kind of made it seem like I would go to jail or they'd detain me for a long time."

He drove away with a $25 ticket for failing to wear a seatbelt, he said.

Parhamovich said he wrote to several state agencies within days claiming the money as his own, asking that it be returned and for notice of any court hearings. The state filed court documents in May asking to forfeit the money. When no one claiming to own it showed at a July 5 hearing, it became the property of the Division of Criminal Investigations.

Alban, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice who represented Parhamovich, said his client was never notified of the state's steps to forfeit the money. Friday's hearing was intended to argue that point, but instead, Parhamovich learned that he'd get back the money he earned renovating and selling several historic houses and properties.

He planned to use $80,000 as a down payment on a music studio. He preferred to keep his savings in cash to easily purchase guitars and other equipment when needed, according to court records.

Alban said it's troubling that the officers who pulled the musician over had a printed copy of the waiver handy during the roadside encounter. The judge made the right decision, he said, but the case demonstrates a broader problem.

"Phil would have lost his life savings over the fact that he didn't wear a seatbelt while driving through Wyoming," he said. "That's outrageous and needs to end."

Parhamovich's claim isn't the first time asset forfeiture in Wyoming has been challenged. The state Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in 2016 filed by Robert Miller, an Illinois man, who argued that it was unconstitutional for the state to seize $470,000 in cash from him on grounds that it was drug money. He was never charged with a crime.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead in 2016 signed a law requiring the state attorney general to review all seizures performed to decide if they were justified, a year after vetoing a stronger proposal to require a criminal conviction before the state could seize any property.

The compromise Mead signed gave the attorney general 30 days to ask a judge to determine if there was probable cause that the property was involved in the drug trade, a necessary step before the state may file a civil case to forfeit the property. But it's not clear those requirements would apply in Parhamovich's case because he signed the waiver form.