Laws have improved in Wyoming since musician Phil Parhamovich passed through the state on tour in 2017. Unfortunately, the same money-making scheme that allowed the government to go after his life savings without arresting, charging or convicting him of a crime remains in effect.
Parhamovich’s ordeal started with a traffic stop on Interstate 80 near Cheyenne after a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper saw him driving without a seatbelt. Following a roadside interrogation and drug dog alert, the trooper and another officer from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations conducted a warrantless search inside Parhamovich’s minivan without his consent.
The officers found no narcotics, weapons or contraband of any type. But they did discover $91,800 stored in a speaker cabinet in the back of the vehicle. Prior to leaving his Wisconsin home, Parhamovich had signed a contract to buy a recording studio in Madison, and he had brought cash for a down payment and other expenses with him on tour.
The money had come from long hours of honest labor restoring and selling historic farmhouses, and carrying the cash was not a crime. Yet the officers pressured Parhamovich to sign a roadside waiver, under what he said was duress, releasing his ownership of the money.
The government then claimed the property as abandoned using civil forfeiture, a process that allows the state to take and permanently keep assets without proving anything in criminal court.
Rather than accept the violation of his rights, Parhamovich fought back and recovered his money with representation from our organization, the nonprofit Institute for Justice.
Despite the constitutional problems with civil forfeiture, advocates defend the practice as an important law enforcement tool. They say civil forfeiture lowers crime and cripples cartels, keeping drugs off the street. Yet they rarely provide evidence. They merely repeat the same talking points and ask people to trust them.
New research from the Institute for Justice moves beyond the emotion of the debate and looks at state-level data using empirical methods. “Does Forfeiture Work? Evidence from the States,” published Feb. 10, shows that government cash grabs simply do not perform as advertised.
When forfeiture activities increase, police do not solve crimes at higher rates, and drug use does not drop. Rather than boosting public safety, the scheme merely boosts revenue for its own sake.
The perverse incentives to patrol for profit are particularly bad in Wyoming, which allows police and prosecutors to keep up to 100% of the assets they forfeit. During the 20-year span from 2000 to 2019, revenue from the practice topped $11 million in Wyoming.
Temptations to exploit forfeiture could get even worse in 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The Institute for Justice study, which analyzes nearly a decade of data from five states that provide necessary reporting detail, shows that forfeiture activity increases with economic downturns — when agencies are most desperate for budget supplements.
The pressure to self-fund skews law-enforcement priorities. Some police activities are less lucrative than others, but this should not influence the way officers serve their communities. Police who interact with the public should ask, “What is your emergency?” not “What are your assets?”
Wyoming residents deserve better. Fortunately, state lawmakers can provide relief in 2021 by repealing civil forfeiture once and for all and replacing it with criminal forfeiture. Government agents still could take and keep assets, but they would have to link the property to illegal behavior proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court.
As a further safeguard, the law should direct proceeds away from law enforcement. The same people who control forfeiture should not be able to profit from their decisions about what property to seize and what cases to prosecute.
These reforms make sense. Parhamovich eventually got his money back, but other innocent property owners remain at risk in Wyoming as long as police have incentives to patrol for profit.