ACLU Alleges County Hired Private Firm That Impersonated Police For Profit

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Border Prosecutions

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

The ACLU of Oklahoma on Monday called for a criminal investigation of a county district attorney that agreed to give a private firm as much as 25 percent of all cash seized at traffic stops. The ACLU alleges that at least two private contractors have illegally impersonated police officers, a misdemeanor under Oklahoma law.

Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks first hired Desert Snow LLC, a private contractor, in January as part of a training program for his drug task force. Under the contract signed by Hicks and Desert Snow, the latter would receive 25 percent of profits from arrest seizures that occur with the participation of the firm and 10 percent of the profits when their instructors were not present.

Hicks suspended the highway stops earlier this month after mounting criticism, including from a county judge who called stops by unlicensed individuals “shocking.” Hicks said he would review the task force’s conduct, but insisted the he had “done everything right.” The task force had seized over $1 million in cash before it was suspended. At least $40,000 has been paid to Desert Snow, and the private contractor could receive an additional $212,000 from a large arrest seizure in May. Hicks said he hired the firm because his task force had had little success on drug stops and was losing federal funding.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, an outgrowth of the War on Drugs, law enforcement directly receives profits from forfeitures in many states. This creates perverse incentives for police to increase seizures. Oklahoma’s laws allow 100 percent of profits from forfeitures to be kept by law enforcement, and require owners of seized property to prove that they did not know that their property was being used illegally before they can retrieve it.

The practice of having Desert Snow instructors on-site during highway stops became highly publicized in February when a pregnant driver was pulled over by Joe David, the company’s founder who is not a licensed Oklahoma officer. David, who had a gun and may have been wearing a t-shirt reading “POLICE” on the back, questioned the driver himself. Her attorney, Al Hoch, told the Oklahoman that “law enforcement is supposed to be a public service function, not a for-profit enterprise,” and called for a change in the law to send arrest seizure money to a general state fund rather than directly to law enforcement.

ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson criticized Hicks’ hiring of Desert Snow in a letter to Hicks, saying that the contractors’ employees had not received the over 600 hours of training required by Oklahoma law to become a “peace officer” authorized to conduct highway stops. “Your whims do not trump the duly-enacted laws of the State of Oklahoma, and neither you nor the counterfeit cops are above the law,” he wrote.

Henderson said the ACLU is also investigating reports of seizures that occurred without any criminal charges being filed. “In several of these cases, law abiding citizens allege that they were made to sign disclaimers of ownership through coercion, having been falsely threatened with jail and criminal charges if they resisted officers’ attempt to take their money,” said Henderson.

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation told the Associated Press that the bureau cannot open an investigation merely at the request of the ACLU, and would require a request from the local sheriff’s offices, district attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office or the governor to do so. The ACLU suggested that a prosecutor be appointed by Attorney General Scott Pruitt to follow up on the case.

Kumar Ramanathan is an intern at ThinkProgress.