Policing For Profit In Oklahoma

aforeDavid Blatt
Oklahoma Policy Institute

(Originally posted August 26, 2013) In 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.

TMR hat tip to Kaye Beach

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  1. Steve Dickson, 26 August, 2013

    Thank you, Mike, for covering this story. It is immensely important that our government returns to its core role of protecting our individual rights. Our second line of defense (the first is each of us individually) are the Peace Officers, which is how “law enforcement” is described in our statutes. The federal government has been going about corrupting the trust between citizen and servant at the local level for a long time, and using our own money against us. I applaud you for bringing these abuses to light, and hope that reform of such practices – or better yet banning of them – will be in our near future. It will be better for all of us, and particularly better for our friends who risk their lives for us on a daily basis.

  2. Norma, 26 August, 2013

    It must be total reform! When the Legislature discovered the abuse in Missouri, they changed policies to put the seized money into the schools. So the local guys teamed up with the Fed’s and went around that law.
    Will happen here too if not stopped completely.
    About 7 years ago I remember a reporter saying that 76 out of 77 counties COULD NOT meet payroll without finds from Forfeiture!

  3. logger, 27 August, 2013

    So the police in our country now rob people at gunpoint on our public highways to protect their own retirement and income stream. How does that make them different from any other gang of armed thugs?


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