Tulsa Attorney BlogPrivate Firm’s Cash Seizures Flout Asset Forfeiture Law

Oklahoma Asset Forfeiture AttorneyA private company’s seizure of cash from motorists along a 21-mile length of I-40 in Caddo County has raised the ire of at least one judge. A Caddo County District Attorney nonetheless says he plans to “move forward” with a drug interdiction program that has had a private agency stopping and seizing cash from motorists.

“I’m shocked,” Caddo County Special Judge David Stephens said upon learning of the program. “For people to pull over people on I-40 without that license is shocking to me.”

The unwarranted cash seizures by a private company started after District Attorney Jason Hicks in January hired Guthrie-based Desert Snow LLC to conduct “training” for the DA’s regional drug task force. The contract awards Desert Snow 25 percent of all cash it seizes, and 10 percent of all cash seized by task force officers when Desert Snow is not on site. In some cases, employees of the private company reportedly conducted traffic stops.

According to The Oklahoman, Hick’s interdiction program has seized more than $1 million in cash so far in 2013. Desert Snow had been paid $40,000 from seizures this year, but stands to gain another $212,000 if it collects a 25 percent share of $850,000 the DA’s task force seized in May.

Cash Seized Without Criminal Charges

Media reports and courtroom battles surrounding Desert Snow’s actions have questioned the legality of roadside stops by private operators acting with the approval of police agencies, and the legality of a contract that pays private citizens a commission for law enforcement work. Several other questions remain to be answered.

How do police find so much suspicious money in the hands of people against whom they can’t find enough evidence to file criminal charges? The Oklahoman reported that criminal cases arising from the questionable stops in Caddo County have been dropped.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is also reported to be looking into whether $400 taken from one motorist remains unaccounted for. In that instance, no charges were filled against the man, but prosecutors claimed in paperwork they were entitled to seize $7,500 discovered during a traffic stop. The man alleges the task force seized $7,900. No drugs were located in the vehicle from which task force members took the cash.

Even without the involvement of a private security company enforcing the law on a commission basis, Oklahoma’s seizure laws are seen in some quarters as among the worst in the nation – even when they are followed. The Institute for Justice, a nationwide public interest law firm, criticized Oklahoma’s forfeiture laws as promoting for-profit police policies by allowing agencies to receive all of the proceeds from civil forfeiture processes. Critics say for-profit policing encourages law enforcement to focus efforts on activities that generate revenue, rather than focus attention on the greatest threats to public safety.

Orwellian Forfeiture Laws, Ironically, Date to 1984

By way of background, the dubious procedure known as civil forfeiture started back around 1984 as part of a federal get-tough-on-drugs initiative. New laws allowed prosecutors to file civil actions against property believed to be associated with illegal activity – usually drug-related activity. In civil court, the standard of proof is lower than in criminal court. Instead of proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” attorneys in civil court must only prove the evidence more likely than not supports their case.

As state legislatures climbed on board, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling that the forfeitures don’t comprise “double jeopardy” prosecution, but that they may comprise “excessive fines” in some cases.

Abuses have been widely reported. A Texas town of just over 1,000 residents was accused of “highway robbery” in a lawsuit that said Tenaha police stopped motorists – usually non-white motorists, according to the lawsuit – on an Interstate highway, seizing cars, cash and property. Fewer than one in four of those stopped were ever charged with a drug crime.

In some cases, police or prosecutors can hold property for as long as a year before a “claimant” has an opportunity to show they own the property that police seized. To recover property, the owner must overcome state arguments that the property was more likely than not involved in illegal activity.

Judge Stephens warned the owner of the firm conducting the roadside seizures of potential consequences if the traffic stops continue. “If you do (conduct traffic stops), I hope to see you again, wearing orange,” the judge told Joe David, owner of Desert Snow LLC.

Orange, of course, is the color inmates wear to court while in custody of a local jail. Hicks told the Stephens County newspaper, The Duncan Banner, he’ll make “adjustments” to the program, which may include having the private training company assist officers by telephone. Hicks was elected in 2010 to serve as District Attorney in Grady, Stephens, Caddo and Jefferson counties.

With a thinly veiled profit motive driving police and prosecutors to focus their efforts on activities that enrich their budgets, a person might think there’s little they can do when authorities decide to seize cash or property. Once police have seized property, your only option is often to fight back in court. Before police seize property, however, your choices can have a significant impact on the outcome of an eventual court battle.

Don’t consent to a search of your vehicle or person. If police insist on patting you down, emptying your wallet or searching your car, don’t resist but don’t in any way imply that you agree to the search. When possible, use a cell phone to record audio or video of your contact with police. In Oklahoma there is no law against discreetly recording conversations in which you are a participant. Some phones allow you to use apps that automatically upload photos or video to an online service. Use of such an app can preserve evidence of your interaction with police.

Free Consultation: Tulsa Asset Forfeiture Attorney

If police have seized your property and won’t give it back, you have rights but you have only a limited time to act. Police must still document the seized property and file a motion asserting why they think they have a right to take it from you. If you don’t file a claim, courts will almost always allow police or prosecutors to keep the property.

It’s urgent that you speak with an attorney while your recollection of the seizure is fresh in your memory. Details about what police did or didn’t do can make a large difference in the outcome of a case.

For a free consultation with a Tulsa asset forfeiture attorney, call the Wirth Law Office today at (918) 879-1681 or toll free at (888) Wirth-Law. If you prefer written correspondence, you may submit a question through the form at the top right of this page.

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