HINTON — After seizing more than $1 million in cash in drug stops this year, a district attorney has suspended further roadside busts by his task force because of growing criticism over a private company's participation.
His prosecutors have dropped all criminal cases arising from the drug stops, The Oklahoman was told. Some seized money is being returned. The attorney general's office is investigating one complaint some seized funds went missing.
“I'm shocked,” a Caddo County special judge said July 2.
The judge spoke at a hearing after learning the private company's owner pulled over a pregnant driver along Interstate 40 and questioned her even though he is not a state-certified law enforcement officer.
“For people to pull over people on I-40 without that license is shocking to me,” Special Judge David A. Stephens said.
The judge said he hoped Joe David, owner of Desert Snow LLC, wouldn't do it again.
“If you do, I hope to see you soon, wearing orange,” the judge said, referring to the color of jail clothes in Caddo County.
At issue is District Attorney Jason Hicks' decision to hire Desert Snow to do on-site training with his task force for a year.
He signed a one-of-its-kind contract in January to pay the Guthrie-based company 25 percent of any funds seized during actual training days. He agreed to pay the company 10 percent of funds seized by his task force on other days when the company trainers weren't present.
Most stops have been along a 21-mile stretch of I-40 in the rolling hills of Caddo County.
Sometimes, no drugs were found and no one was arrested, but task force officers took money found in the vehicles anyway after a drug-sniffing dog got excited.
Forfeited funds are split among the law enforcement agencies of the task force after Desert Snow is paid.
Hicks has paid the company more than $40,000 so far. The company could get another $212,000 off the largest seizure its officials participated in — the discovery of almost $850,000 in May.
“I think his intentions were good, but I don't think he thought it out,” said well-known defense attorney Irven Box, who represents a Colorado man charged with marijuana possession after being stopped for a cracked windshield.
Box said in no way should a private company be involved in drug stops when it gets paid from funds found on the stops.
“That … at least gives the appearance that these seizures are done for profit and not to protect the citizens,” he said.
DA promises review
In a lengthy interview Thursday, Hicks said he did nothing wrong.
“I believe I have done everything right,” he said.
He promised to review every civil money forfeiture case and every criminal case involving his task force.
“I understand the criticism. I understand the concern,” he said. “I have halted any activity on the highway by the interdiction unit pending my review … with the staff attorneys.”
Hicks was elected in 2010 as the district attorney for Grady, Stephens, Caddo and Jefferson counties.
He said he hired Desert Snow to provide training because his drug task force had little success on drug stops. He said he hoped to make money for his office from the drug stops because of a loss of federal funds.
He said he consulted with the state auditor, Gary Jones, about the contract and was assured it was legal. Jones confirmed that was his opinion.
Hicks' task force includes his investigators, Hinton police officers and agents with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said a task force officer always accompanied a Desert Snow employee on the stops.
He said he plans for his task force to restart drug stops eventually and his officers will still consult with Desert Snow by phone. He may redo the contract next year to resume on-site training.
He also said dismissed criminal cases could be refiled.
“Yes, it's unusual, but what we're doing here is trying to finance law enforcement on the backs of criminals. At the end of the day, the money that we've taken here has been money that we've taken away from drug traffickers,” Hicks said. “This is money that we have taken away from the cartels and are putting it to good use in law enforcement. And I think that's a good thing.”
In an emailed statement, Desert Snow said it had instructed about 50,000 officers across the United Stated and Canada. It said, “We have entered into a legal contract with District Attorney Jason Hicks … to provide professional, legal and proven tactics at no cost to the public.”
About the drug stop
In the stop that upset the judge, the company founder, Joe David, pulled over a pregnant driver in February after seeing her twice bump the white line along the shoulder. The stop was one of more than 400 done during a five-day operation involving Desert Snow in February.
David had a gun and possibly was wearing a shirt that had “POLICE” on the back, according to his testimony. David, a former California Highway Patrol trooper, was with a BIA agent and was driving the agent's BIA car. He questioned the woman himself.
The Ohio woman and two passengers were charged after 25 pounds of marijuana was found in the vehicle. Her case was dismissed July 2.
The woman's attorney, Al Hoch, is calling for a change in the law. He told The Oklahoman forfeited drug money should go into the state general fund rather than directly to law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is supposed to be a public service function, not a for-profit enterprise,” he said.
The judge on July 2 criticized the district attorney, saying it was the prosecutor's absolute duty to be sure any police officer in Caddo County is certified by the state Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training or is in the process of getting certification.
“In our system of justice, the state Legislature a long time ago has developed the CLEET system as guaranteeing to the people of the state of Oklahoma a professional police force,” the judge said. “The reason for that is any time a police officer arrests somebody, they're taking a valuable right each one of us as individuals have — our right to liberty.”