Policing for profit in Oklahoma

piles_of_moneyIn July, Caddo County Special Judge David A. Stephens strongly condemned a “shocking” practice that was exposed after a woman driving along I-40 was stopped and questioned by Joe David, the owner of a private Guthrie-based company, Desert Snow. Since January, Desert Snow  had been participating in roadside stops and searches along with other members of a local drug task force. According to its website, Desert Snow is “dedicated to all those who traffic contraband and the Law Enforcement Officers who relentlessly pursue them!!!”.

Under an agreement signed by Caddo Co. District Attorney Jason Hicks, Desert Snow receives  between 10 and 25 percent of cash and other property seized from drivers during stops in return for providing on-site training.  According to The Oklahoman’s Nolan Clay:

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.

After it came to light that Mr. David, who is not a licensed law enforcement officer, was conducting stops himself, DA Hicks suspended the drug interdiction program pending a full review.

Caddo County’s apparent outsourcing of law enforcement duties to a private company introduced a novel and newsworthy variation to what has become a prevalent policing practice known as civil asset forfeiture.  As explained by the Institute for Justice, a legal organization dedicated to protecting property rights, “unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with or convicted of a crime to lose homes, cars, cash or other property.”  Because no criminal charges are filed, alleged wrongdoers have no right to legal representation. As a recent feature article in the New Yorker made clear, police and DAs often use the threat of arrest and felony charges to get away with seizing cash, cars, jewelry, and other forfeited assets uncontested. This expansion of police powers at the expense of constitutional due process protections has led a wide spectrum of organizations, from the Cato Institute to the American Civil Liberties Union, to become vocal opponents of civil assets forfeiture.

The use of civil assets forfeiture by both federal and local authorities has skyrocketed since the mid-1980’s, when the federal government created a program known as Equitable Sharing, which allowed local police agencies to retain up to 80 percent of the value of seized assets. Many states, including Oklahoma, followed suit by writing their own forfeiture laws, with proceeds divvied up between law enforcement agencies according to local profit-sharing agreements. In a time of tight public resources, forfeiture has served as a lucrative funding stream for DA offices and police departments, paying for staff salaries, employee bonuses, sophisticated surveillance equipment, and more.  As a report by the Institute for Justice explains, “By giving law enforcement a direct financial stake in forfeiture efforts, most state and federal laws encourage policing for profit, not justice.” 

In a report that assesses state civil forfeiture laws, the Institute for Justice gave Oklahoma a D-, noting:

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. 

According to this report, Oklahoma collects over $4.7 million annually from the federal Equitable Sharing program and $5.6 million annually from local forfeiture programs.

Following the settlement of a class action lawsuit challenging forfeiture practices in the town of Tenaha, the Texas legislature passed a reform bill that modestly restricted the use of forfeiture funds and banned the use of “roadside waivers”, in which drivers waive their right to challenge seizure of their property. But as the A.C.L.U.’s expert stressed in the New Yorker:

What stands out to me is the nature of how pervasive and dependent police really are on civil-asset forfeiture—it’s their bread and butter—and, therefore, how difficult it is to engage in systemic reform.

Advocates for reform call for doing away with civil asset forfeiture completely, and instead to allow for property to be forfeited only after someone has been tried and convicted in a court of law. If the practice is to remain, the system’s current profit incentive can be restrained by following the lead of states like Maine, Missouri, North Dakota and Vermont that require that funds be placed in a neutral account and not dedicated to the very law enforcement agencies that seize the assets in the first place. That, however, would require finding other revenue sources to pay for DA offices and policing – a very tall order in these times of never-ending budget scarcity.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

7 thoughts on “Policing for profit in Oklahoma

  1. Cherokee County has taken to outsourcing courthouse fine collections. Basically the Court Clerk has hired a collections agency to do the job of the sheriff’s office. Then the clerk imposes a fee 17% without a hearing. There is no statutory basis for imposing the fee. There is no contract with the collections agency or LEO trade organization. It appears to be racketeering since there is no paper trail of where the 17% is supposed to go.

  2. Here are some clips and the link to the New Yorker magazine article referred to above.

    clip “When you allow the profit incentive, that’s when you start getting problems,” Porter said. “It’s like the difference between serving in the Army and working for Blackwater.” The Blackwater model wasn’t endemic just in Tenaha. In Oklahoma, a Caddo County district attorney hired a private company, Desert Snow L.L.C., to train a local drug-interdiction task force. Although the company’s contractors were not certified law officers, they reportedly interrogated drivers and took up to twenty-five per cent of the seized cash, even in cases where no contraband was present. Last month, after a county judge denounced the contractors’ role as “shocking,” the district attorney suspended the practice.

    clip Because forfeiture actions tend to affect people who cannot easily fight back, even those who feel wronged seldom contest the seizures or seek public notice. “There’s no telling how many Tenahas there are,” Vanita Gupta, a deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. Early on, she took an interest in the suit that Guillory and Garrigan were putting together, and her office joined in the effort. “It’s very hard to document,” she said, noting that many people targeted by the practice are too intimidated to talk. “These cases tend to stay in the dark.”

    clip “What stands out to me is the nature of how pervasive and dependent police really are on civil-asset forfeiture—it’s their bread and butter—and, therefore, how difficult it is to engage in systemic reform,” Vanita Gupta, of the A.C.L.U., says.

    source: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/08/12/130812fa_fact_stillman?currentPage=all

    1. In Mexico the people that do this are called banditos. What has become of our constitutional rights in America? Stupid me, I thought the police were supposed to serve and protect the people, not prey upon them. This is highway robbery in it’s purest form. I’d rather take my chances with organized crime than with the police anymore.

  3. Cherokee County also like to seize property and assets, schedule hearing every month to be postponed to the next month for years at a time and when it does come to trial, all charges are dropped but you are s*** out of luck, they sold your property long before the charges were dropped and they still expect you to pay fines of $2500.00 for something you weren’t convicted of. It’s one of the biggest “good ole boy” do whatever the hell they want to do, counties in Oklahoma. And by all means, add any kind of unrelated charge you can think of to get the bond way up there.

  4. Instead of addressing these egregious criminal activities by the local gendarmes, our elected legislators are taking care of the important business: robbing the education budget to give tax breaks to people who don’t need or want them.

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