Private Asset Forfeiture in Oklahoma

Here’s another one of those situations that is absolutely appalling to pretty much everyone, regardless of political ideology, and yet government officials do it without a moment’s hesitation and can’t imagine why anyone would be upset by it. A prosecutor in Oklahoma hired a private company to seize hundreds of thousands of dollars during traffic stops.

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…

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…

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.

But here’s the worst part:

In a lengthy interview Thursday, Hicks said he did nothing wrong.

“I believe I have done everything right,” he said.

Of course you do. But you’re wrong. And so are the laws that allow this to happen at all, no matter who is seizing the money. If you can’t prove that the person who had the property, including money, had gotten it through crime or was using it to commit a crime, you can’t seize it. Conviction first, then punishment. How is that not obvious to everyone?

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  • So let me get this straight: this private, for-profit company gets 25% of all assets seized during “training days”, plus 10% on non-training days? And this is assets seized, not just seizures that result in a criminal conviction? If the person is shown innocent of all charges, does the company get to keep its share and, if so, does the county or the innocent party have to swallow it?

    Who the bloody hell needs justice? Just stop people as they walk away from an ATM, and there you go.

    Thank goodness for small government.

  • D. C. Sessions

    If the person is shown innocent of all charges

    Ah, but that never happens. That’s not what our system does — there is no such verdict as “innocent.” We only do “guilty” and “not proven to be guilty.” That being so, it’s impossible to prove that the money is innocent, so it remains forfeit — at least until the perp who had it can prevail in a civil action (preponderance of evidence) that it wasn’t obtained illegally. Not an easy standard to meet, and of course there’s the cost of the suit.

    Most of the time, you’re better off just letting it go — lawyers are pricey and the odds aren’t good.

  • machintelligence

    It is reminiscent of the “witch trials” where the inquisitors were allowed to keep the possessions of the convicted. This virtually guaranteed conviction of nearly all of the accused.

  • Dunc

    At least in ye olden days, highwaymen had the decency to wear masks.

  • Larry

    Back in the day, they had stagecoaches instead of cars and the robbers wore black hats.

    Otherwise, its pretty much the same.

  • 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.

    Which, of course, in no way provides an incentive for the dogs to get excited with just about every car they pull over.

  • Chiroptera

    I’m afraid somebody has to ask: Does anyone know the breakdown of the racial profiling of the stops?

  • Odds are that if this is investigated the word ‘kickback’ will emerge, and the prosecutor that hired the private company will be wearing orange.

  • roggg

    You may be innocent until proven guilty, but as I understand asset forfeiture in many states, your money and property does not get that same presumption of innocence. You have to show that your property is legit to get it back.

  • rowanvt

    In this case, I think all the dogs used should be tested to show if they will alert to only drugs…. or also cash.

  • matty1

    @9 Well yes that’s the problem using property laws to get around the presumption of innocence and treat someone as guilty and deserving what amounts to a fine.

  • eric

    @6 and @10 – there is no need to think the dogs (or trainers) are intentionally false triggering. Something like 90% of all bills in circulation have trace amounts of drugs on them (mostly cocaine, I believe). They can work properly and still arrest anyone they want using such “evidence.”

    Of course, the rational response to this observation would be to stop using drugs to smell money, since that data provides no credible evidence that the money-carrier commited a crime. Instead, however, PFs seem to have interpreted these results to mean that every single adult walks around with credible evidence of having sniffed coke.

  • notruescott

    This is one of those things that leaves me in impotent rage. How the hell does anyone justify this sort of thing? How in the hell does this stuff make it through the courts untouched? How in the hell are people not in the streets with torches and pitchforks? Why am I not?

    I just don’t know. Reading this shit just ruins my whole day.

  • eric

    Err…stop using dogs to smell money.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Might have to change the words of that song:

    Land of the free. Home of the brave.

  • Basically, if you’re carrying a large amount of cash, the police will assume you’re a drug dealer and seize it. It’s up to you to prove you are not a drug dealer to get your money back. Pretty sweet deal for the company.

    There’s a simple fix: Require authorities to secure a criminal conviction before they can proceed with forfeiture proceedings. Naturally, the authorities will fight against that tooth and nail.

    And people wonder why the “War on Drugs” never ends? It’s too profitable for both sides!

  • magistramarla

    This is what happens with the privatization of the jobs that government is supposed to do.

    Corruption happened when the government employees did the work, but now that employees of for-profit companies are doing it, the corruption is growing exponentially.


    There’s also this story where police took $1 million in cash and had to be taken to court to get it back, even though it was well-documented what the money was for.

  • And they tried to argue the money’s owner had no standing to claim it since she wasn’t in the car at the time.

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  • DaveL

    there is no need to think the dogs (or trainers) are intentionally false triggering. Something like 90% of all bills in circulation have trace amounts of drugs on them (mostly cocaine, I believe). They can work properly and still arrest anyone they want using such “evidence.”

    There’s a third possibility. Blind studies of drug dogs and their handlers show that their tendency to alert is strongly dependent on the idea that there should be drugs present. The fact the handler wants the dog to alert is enough, even if he doesn’t give any kind of intentional cue. Dogs are highly attuned to pick up on human body language and highly motivated to please their masters.

  • kantalope


    A million bucks as an exotic dancer??!!!!

    and “[Judge] Bataillon said he was troubled by a Nebraska State Patrol policy to convert the cash into a cashier’s check and destroy the money, which means there’s no way to rebut accusations that it was tainted with drug residue.”

    How does that work?

  • D. C. Sessions

    How the hell does anyone justify this sort of thing?

    All wars have collateral damage, and all wars have innocent noncombatants caught up and harmed in the process. It’s just part of the price we pay for freedom.

  • “A million bucks as an exotic dancer??!!!!”

    Over 15 years, that’s just shy of $67,000 a year. Of course she had living expenses, so it would have had to have been more than that. Assuming $100,000 a year, that’s about $400 a night. I’m not familiar with the exotic dancing industry, but that sounds quite doable to me. All it really requires is for her to be a disciplined saver, which most people aren’t.

  • kermit.

    This is not new. This has been going on since the seventies. In the 1980s there was a famous case of a rich man’s house invaded by cops of multiple agencies. He drew a gund when they broke in without announcing themselves first, and was shot to death. There were 6 agencies IIRC involved. He was quite wealthy, and plans were found of how the various agencies involved were going to divvy up his property. They claimed that they had received a phone tip that he was dealing. There were no illegal drugs found, and his wife successfully sued for a bundle, But he was only about 60, and they already had money, She lost her life’s companion forever in a night of terror.


    Other less wealthy folks have not fared so well. A fishing boat owner in Florida lost his boat when the Feds claimed he had rented it out to drug smugglers who used it to pick up a shipment at sea. Perhaps so, but how is he supposed to vet all of his customers? Does Avis Rent-a-Car lose vehicles if a renters smoke pot in them?


    They do not even have to be charged, let alone convicted. let alone prove that the property was ill-gotten. I see no reason why this will stay confined to drug accusations.

  • Pieter B, FCD

    Kermit, that was Donald P Scott of Malibu CA.