DA’s Use of Private Contractor in Highway Drug Seizures and Forfeitures Causes Controversy

A district attorney in Oklahoma has drawn substantial criticism for his use of a private company, whose primary business is law enforcement training, in seizures of drugs and alleged drug money along Interstate 40. Critics, including a state judge, say that many of the individuals involved in the busts lack certification as law enforcement officers. They further charge that the program improperly shares a percentage of seized funds with the company. The DA has put the program on hold pending a review while maintaining the program’s legality, and has dismissed several civil forfeiture cases arising from stops that involved employees of the contractor. Civil forfeitures, through which the state can seize assets they claim are related to criminal activity outside of a criminal indictment or trial, have been the subject of much controversy because of the potential for abuse by law enforcement, prosecutors, and other officials.

Jason Hicks, district attorney for Oklahoma’s District 6, reportedly entered into a contract with the private company Desert Snow in January 2013 to assist in highway drug seizures. He described the program as a “creative way to fill a funding gap,” and claims that the seized funds go towards the law enforcement budget. Stops involving Desert Snow personnel have led to at least twenty-four criminal cases and twenty-five civil forfeiture cases, bringing in about $1.3 million to the district.

In a civil forfeiture case, the state can seek to take ownership of property, including cash, seized during a search or an arrest, regardless of whether a criminal case ever occurs. Local news station News9 interviewed a man stopped under the program, who said that police did not find any drugs in his car and did not arrest him. Although the man says he has no criminal history involving drugs, police took $7,900 in cash from him and filed a civil forfeiture suit.

One concern raised regarding the program is that the individuals employed by Desert Snow lack official law enforcement certification. The state’s Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) ordinarily certifies qualified individuals as law enforcement officers after they complete a training course, subject to continuing education requirements. Hicks maintains that, while the program was active, Desert Snow employees accompanied drug investigators, but did not make actual stops or arrests. He also says that they have up to one year to obtain CLEET certification.

An alleged split of the seized funds is also a source of criticism. The contract with Desert Snow reportedly states that the company will receive twenty-five percent of the seized funds. Hicks has paid the company at least $40,000, and under the terms of the contract, it could be entitled to over $200,000 more. This sort of revenue-sharing plan potentially creates incentives for law enforcement to pull over more people and seize more assets, benefitting private interests more than the public interest they are supposed to serve.

Hicks suspended Desert Snow’s involvement recently, after a special judge in Caddo County expressly criticized him and the program, particularly the company’s lack of CLEET certification, The judge even suggested that the company’s owner could face criminal charges for continued participation without certification. At least thirteen of the criminal cases and six of the civil forfeitures related to the program have been dismissed by Hicks’ office, which could result in the return of about $40,000. Hicks has maintained, however, that the program is legal, and that he may refile the forfeiture cases after the conclusion of the review.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the constitutional rights of Texas defendants for more than twenty years. He draws on his experience as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor to make certain that law enforcement and the courts follow the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system and respect his clients’ rights. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your case, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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