CADDO COUNTY, Okla. - Impersonating a police officer is a very serious crime, but in an uncommon twist, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma is accusing a company hired by the Caddo County District Attorney's Office of doing just that.
The company, Desert Snow, is setup to train drug task forces. The ACLU says workers for that company are actually making traffic stops in Oklahoma while workers aren't certified to do so.
Driving down Interstate 40, Julius Crooks was headed home to California, but he ran into trouble in Caddo County.
"I felt like I got robbed," said Crooks.
The 28-year-old says Desert Snow was to blame.
The company was hired by District Attorney Jason Hicks to train his drug task force.
Crooks says the group pulled him over twice in five minutes and ended up taking the $7,900 he was traveling with.
They confiscated his rifle as well.
"I asked them what was the problem, why were we being searched and stuff like that," said Crooks. "Nobody gave me a reaction or a response."
Crooks says the group, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, did not arrested him because he didn't have drugs.
"When they were leaving and I was pulling out my phone to take pictures of their car and get their car number license plates and stuff, the officer stopped me he told me if I take any pictures or any videos, he was going to taze me," said Crooks.
It's cases like this that has the ACLU concerned that Desert Snow is impersonating peace officers.
"If I pull you over, and I'm wearing a shirt with a badge or a seal on it, and I'm wearing a gun, and I've initiated a traffic stop, and I've got a car with lights and siren on it, and I start asking you if I have drugs or money in the car, I have effectively caused you to believe that I am a police officer," said Brady Henderson with ACLU. "That I am endowed with public authority. When in reality, I'm effectively at best a hired gun."
District Attorney Hicks sent us a statement saying Desert Snow has helped his officers seize 100 pounds of marijuana, multiple ounces of cocaine, hundreds of pills, and $1.3 million. The trainers are paid a percentage of the money the confiscate, and Hicks says trainers "at no time are allowed to operate an investigation alone."
“I think the bottom line on this program is that it is successful. We are taking drugs off of our streets and destroying them, and we are seizing money from drug traffickers and putting it into law enforcement” District Attorney Jason Hicks stated.
"We've identified at least a few of these stops in which the Desert Snow employees are actually essentially doing the police work and dealing with citizens as police officers," said Henderson.
As for crooks, he say the DA gave him back his rifle and his most of his money.
"Mysteriously, $400 is gone," said the man.
ACLU is asking the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations to look into these accusations, but OSBI says it can only take requests from the District Attorney, the Attorney General or the Governor.
This is the letter that the ACLU sent out as they ask for the investigation:
ACLU of Oklahoma calls for Criminal Charges and State Investigation in Caddo County Drug Task Force/Desert Snow Profit-sharing Scheme
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma today called for an OSBI investigation of the recent activities of the District Six Drug Task Force, and for criminal charges to be filed against members of Desert Snow, LLC, a private contracting company hired by Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks to help run drug interdiction stops of motorists along I-40 in exchange for a percentage of the Task Force’s profits.
In a letter to District Attorney Hicks, ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson raised concerns about private contractors from Desert Snow, who are not certified law enforcement officers, falsely impersonating peace officers by operating law enforcement vehicles, making traffic stops, searching and detaining people and property while armed, and wearing shirts indicating they were law enforcement officials. At least three Desert Snow employees appear to have impersonated peace officers in violation of state law, including company founder Joseph David. False impersonation of a peace officer is a misdemeanor offense in violation of 21 O.S. § 264, punishable by up to a year in jail.
“We understand that none of these men are, or ever have been, CLEET-certified Oklahoma law enforcement officers,” said Henderson in his letter to DA Jason Hicks, explaining that the agents of Desert Snow, “are not officers at all, but rather private citizens pretending to be peace officers, and engaging in potentially deadly encounters without the benefit of the 600 hours of instruction mandated for an Oklahoma professional peace officer, and without a shred of public accountability.”
DA Hicks has said that he is responsible for “commission[ing] and credential[ing] Desert Snow employees as officers;” however, a district attorney does not have the ability to certify a private citizen as an official peace officer. Under 19 O.S. § 215.35A, a district attorney has the authority to employ investigators, but an investigator does not automatically qualify as a peace officer. The only way a person can obtain certified peace officer status in Oklahoma is by becoming CLEET-certified.
Further alarming concerns have surfaced over the questionable taking and keeping of private citizens’ property by the Task Force. Forfeitures of private property are not unlawful when people engaged in criminal activity use that property to commit crimes. However, in Caddo County DA Hicks has filed several forfeitures to take money and property from private citizens where no criminal charges have been filed.
The legality of these forfeitures is highly questionable. As Henderson explains, “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’ attempts to take their property.” These private citizens were detained by the Task Force and their property taken without evidence linking them to any criminal activity. Considering Desert Snow receives up to 25% of all forfeitures the Task Force collects, this activity becomes even more alarming. As Henderson put it, “The more they seize from citizens, the more money they make,” pointing to a disturbing conflict of interest at work in Caddo County’s partnership with Desert Snow.
A brief ACLU investigation has uncovered that in some cases notices of forfeiture, critical tools for citizens who wish to go to court to get their property back, were sent to incorrect or non-existent addresses, including strip malls and even a golf course. In the letter, Henderson tells DA Hicks, “a citizen who never receives notice of a forfeiture has a much tougher time fighting one. Whether or not such citizen is in the wrong or right, any deliberate attempt to avoid giving him or her notice is a massive violation of the right to due process.” Due Process is a right guaranteed to all citizens by the fifth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution.
The ACLU of Oklahoma asks that DA Hicks fulfill his promise “to seek justice and prosecute crime” by requesting the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations initiate a full investigation into the potential illegal activity occurring within the DA’s office. Because it is DA Hicks’ own actions in hiring a for-profit private entity which has led to the conduct, the ACLU has also requested DA Hicks ask the Attorney General of Oklahoma to appoint a “conflict prosecutor” as a neutral party to bring charges against all parties engaged in this criminal activity.
The ACLU of Oklahoma is committed to protecting the constitutional rights and the safety of those living in and traveling through Caddo County. As one member of ACLU’s legal team put it: “Our citizens have a right to know that the officers on their highways are properly trained and certified, and have a right to travel without fear that their property will be illegally taken from them under the color of law.” The ACLU is continuing to investigate, as well as preparing for civil litigation or contact with federal law enforcement authorities, should either be necessary.