By Phillip Smith
An asset forfeiture scheme that utilized a private security contractor to stop vehicles on Interstate 40 in Caddo County, Oklahoma, has been shut down after garnering strong criticism. Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hickssuspended the stops earlier this month after getting a tongue-lashing from a local judge.
Hicks got the bright idea of hiring the private security contractorDesert Snow LLC to do on-site training with his local drug task force. Desert Snow claims to have trained more than 30,000 police across the country in interdiction techniques. "Providing criminal and terrorist interdiction training since 1989,"it boasts on its web site, and "20+ years of high quality 'no nonsense' instruction in the pursuit of America's worst criminals."
But beyond paying the private operators to train police, the contract DA Hicks agreed to in January gave Desert Snow 25% of all assets seized during training days and 10% of all assets seized even on days the contractors were not present.
Hicks told The Oklahoman he hired the contractors "because his drug task force had little success on drug stops" and because "he hoped to make money for his office from the drug stops because of a loss of federal funds."
Stops were made on a stretch of I-40 in Caddo County, and on some occasions, no drug were found and no one was arrested, but police seized money anyway after claiming that a drug-sniffing dog had alerted. Desert Snow had earned $40,000 so far this year from its share of seizures and was in line to receive another $212,000 from an $850,000 seizure before the program blew up in its face.
Under Oklahoma law, asset forfeiture funds are to be split among law enforcement agencies that took part in the operation. But in the deal brokered with Desert Snow, the private contractor gets its cut off the top.
The sweet deal came to an end earlier this month at a hearing where a local judge learned that Desert Snow owner Joe David had pulled over a pregnant driver on I-40 and questioned her even though he is not a state-certified law enforcement officer. David was wearing a gun and possibly a shirt that said "POLICE" on the back, according to his testimony. The stop was one of 400 conducted over a five-day period with Desert Snow in February.
"I'm shocked," said Caddo County Special Judge David Stephens at a July 2 hearing. "For people to pull over people on I-40 without that license is shocking to me."
Stephens urged David not to do it again. "If you do, I hope to see you soon, wearing orange," he said, referring to the color of jail uniforms in Caddo County.
The pregnant woman and her passengers were found to be carrying 25 pound of pot, but the criminal charges against her have been dismissed. Her attorney, Al Hoch, called for reform of the state's asset forfeiture laws, saying seized money should go to the state general fund instead of directly to law enforcement.
"Law enforcement is supposed to be a public service function, not a for-profit enterprise," he said.
Those remarks were echoed by well-known Oklahoma defense attorney Irven Box, who is representing a Colorado man charged with marijuana possession after he was pulled over for a cracked windshield. Private companies shouldn't be getting paid with funds from drug stops they are involved in, he said.
"That at least gives the appearance that these seizures are done for profit and not to protect the citizens," Box said.