Desert Snow. It sounds like a covert military operation or a street name for designer cocaine. Truth be told, it's something much more sinister in my modest opinion. Desert Snow LLC is a private, for-profit "Criminal and Terrorist Identification and Apprehension" company, providing training for law enforcement agencies in highway interdiction. And as a defense attorney, seeing a company like this operating on our highways is concerning to say the least.
Desert Snow Drug Stop Program
What "Desert Snow" represents for Oklahoma is an I-40 drug-stop program that seems to amount to little more than a free-for-all cash grab, a scandal which has likely ruined the credibility of a district attorney and prompted the ACLU to call for an investigation.
Yessir, some of the individuals who have been stopping folks on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma aren't even "cops" and the ones who are, may have been operating under the "training and experience" of something other than the state-mandated CLEET (Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training) certification.
Interstate 40 is well-known as a drug trafficking corridor, but Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks noticed that law enforcement agents in his jurisdiction were making few drug stops and arrests in comparison with surrounding counties. Given dwindling funding and Oklahoma's permissive seizure laws, Hicks found a solution in the Guthrie-based Desert Snow. It's possible that other counties have used, or continue to use, this "training" as well.
Highway Interdiction Program
Developed and owned by Joe David, a retired California Highway Patrol Trooper, Desert Snow and its Black Asphalt training program are self-billed as "the 'Rolls Royce' of highway interdiction training programs." In January of this year, Hicks signed a contract with Desert Snow which paid the company 25 percent of asset forfeitures from I-40 drug stops in which Desert Snow trainers were involved.
Furthermore, the company received 10 percent of seized funds from stops in which its trainers were not present. In six months, Caddo County law enforcement agencies seized more than $1 million in cash. Desert Snow received $40,000 during that time, and stood to gain an additional $212,000 off of the task force's largest seizure, in which $850,000 was seized during a traffic stop in May of this year.
In early July, the program was quickly halted after a Caddo County Special Judge criticized the program. Judge David A. Stephens discovered that Desert Snow's Joe David, who is not a state-certified law enforcement agent, had himself conducted a traffic stop, pulling over and questioning a pregnant woman. Stephens called the act "shocking," saying that if David ever pulled someone over again, he "hope[d] to see [him] soon, wearing orange"... which is of course the color worn by Caddo County jail inmates.
In addition to the concerns over unlicensed employees of Desert Snow conducting traffic stops is criticism over funds that are seized without an arrest and missing money from forfeitures. Since the Desert Snow program has been suspended, Caddo County prosecutors have dismissed all criminal cases arising from the stops, and the task force has returned $22,127 seized from I-40 travelers in three cases.
Seizing Property without Cause
Among those travelers is Julius S. Crooks, 28, who had $7,900 in cash and a semiautomatic rifle seized during a traffic stop in January. Crooks was traveling through Caddo County on his way home to California after visiting family in Alabama. Although he was not arrested for any crime, law enforcement officials, with assistance from Desert Snow trainers, seized the cash, which Crooks says was given to him by his father to purchase a car. He says the rifle was an impulse purchase and was not even assembled.
However, the task force said it "detected" marijuana residue on the bag in which the cash and gun were found, and took the money and the firearm, despite not placing Crooks under arrest for any crime. Crooks has a receipt showing that $7,900 was seized, but the amount logged by law enforcement is only $7,500. The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office is investigating whether the missing $400 is the result of a typographical error or theft.
District Attorney Jason Hicks insists that he has done nothing wrong in hiring a private company and says that if anyone on the task force acted illegally, he will be the first to file criminal charges. However, regardless of whether the contract and the actions of the task force were within the letter of the law, critics say that the spirit of the law was grossly violated.
In a 2010 Institute for Justice Report, "Policing for Profit," Oklahoma's forfeiture laws are called the worst in the nation: "Oklahoma has terrible civil forfeiture laws, and its statutes give law enforcement significant financial incentives to seize property. . . In all civil forfeitures in Oklahoma, owners are presumed guilty and must contest forfeiture by proving they did not know property was being used illegally. Worse, law enforcement receives 100 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture."
Lawyers who represent individuals charged with drug crimes after being stopped for something as innocuous as a cracked windshield, swerving, or failure to signal know that this for-profit asset seizure sends a terrible message. When a private company is paid from the seized funds, it gives off the impression that these stops are merely fishing expeditions initiated in the hopes of discovering cash money. The stops aren't being conducted for the safety of the public; they are being conducted for the benefit of law enforcements' pilfered purse.
More and more often, I see people stopped on major intersections for simple traffic violations. Officers will try and reassure the driver that they are only going to receive a warning and that "it won't affect your record or cost you anything." The officer will usually ask the driver to set in the cruiser with him or her while the warning is written out. At that point the officer will either call for a drug detection dog, or try to instigate a consensual stop where he or she can question the individual about illegal weapons, drugs, or money... then come the threats of jail time and other consequences.
What to Do
If you find yourself in this position, act courteously, but don't fall prey to the trap: if the officer only pulled you over for the traffic violation, he or she can only keep you there as long as it takes to write the ticket or citation, unless the officer develops reasonable suspicion to believe further detention is necessary. And no, nervousness on your part is not enough. Ask if you are free to leave, and if the officer says no or informs you that you are "being detained," just sit tight and shut up.
The ACLU of Oklahoma has called upon the Caddo County District Attorney's Office to ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) to launch a criminal investigation into the task force, saying that at the very least, Desert Snow employees are guilty of the misdemeanor offense of impersonating an officer. ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson also asserts that the task force seized assets for trumped up reasons. "In several of these cases," he writes, "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."
Hicks continues to assert that his office has done nothing wrong in hiring a private company to assist with highway interdiction training, and even some critics admit that his heart was likely in the right place. However, the Oklahoma City attorney representing Julius Crooks may have put it best:
"The Constitution was suspended in Caddo County."