The Norman Transcript

July 30, 2013

ACLU seeks investigation of drug task force

By Tim Talley
The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma on Monday called for an investigation of a drug task force in Caddo County that uses a private contracting company to help run drug stops of motorists on Interstate 40.

The ACLU asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to launch an investigation and also called for charges to be filed against contractors from Desert Snow LLC, who the organization said appear to be impersonating police officers in violation of state law.

In a letter to Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks, ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson said company employees have never been certified as Oklahoma police officers by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training.

“Despite this, they are operating law enforcement vehicles, pulling over motorists, questioning drivers and passengers and searching and detaining people and property while armed with weapons capable of deadly force and wearing shirts with a badge or seal emblazoned on the breast,” Henderson’s letter states.

It says Desert Snow contractors are private citizens pretending to be police officers and engaging the public without the 600 hours of instruction that is mandated to be a peace officer in Oklahoma “and without a shred of public accountability.” Impersonating a peace officer is a misdemeanor offense in Oklahoma.

Henderson’s letter states that Hicks’ office entered into an agreement with the for-profit Desert Snow to aid in drug interdiction operations in exchange for up to 25 percent of the task force’s profits. Hicks claims to have credentialed and commissioned Desert Snow employees as task force members to give them authority alongside the highway.

But Hicks lacks the authority to grant peace officer status, according to Henderson.

Henderson also said the ACLU is investigating reports of questionable seizures of private citizens’ property by members of the task force. Forfeiture of private property is permitted when it was used to commit a crime, but several forfeitures have happened in Caddo County when no criminal charges were filed, the letter states.

“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,” Henderson said.

In at least one case, Henderson said, it appears a member of the drug task force pocketed $400 that was obtained in a seizure.

Neither Hicks nor Desert Snow founder Joseph David immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment.

A spokeswoman for the OSBI, Jessica Brown, said the agency cannot open an investigation at the ACLU’s request because it is not among the agencies that by law can request an investigation, which includes local sheriff’s offices, district attorneys, the attorney general’s office and the governor.