The Duncan Banner

Local News

July 23, 2013

Hicks defends private company involvement in drug busts

D.A. reviewing program amid claims of impropriety

DUNCAN — Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks is defending participation of a private company in drug busts made by his task force on Interstate 40, though he has put the program on hold and dismissed criminal cases stemming from the stops.

Hicks said Monday that the unique training program involving Guthrie-based Desert Snow and investigators with his District 06 Interdiction Unit is a way to curb drug trafficking and keep some investigators in light of dwindling federal dollars.

Under a contract that began with Hicks’ office in January, Desert Snow has trained some of the D.A.’s investigators in drug interdiction, and for payment, gets 25 percent of money seized in drug busts the company participates in while training and 10 percent of seizures made when its instructors are not present.

Hicks said with training from Desert Snow, the interdiction program — part of the District 06 Drug and Violent Crime Task Force — has seized more than 100 pounds of marijuana, hundreds of pills, some cocaine and about $1.3 million in cash from drug traffickers.

Most of the stops have been made on a 22-mile stretch of I-40 in Caddo County, one of four counties that Hicks serves as D.A. None of the stops, or criminal cases that resulted, were in Stephens County, he said.

The Desert Snow instructors have been commissioned as investigators with Hick’s office, something authorized by state law, Hicks says.   

But Hicks said the program is on hold for now and under a full review while he and his staff address claims — which he says are largely from defense attorneys — that the program is improper or even illegal.

“I believe I am within the boundaries of the law without question, but there have been questions of appearance of impropriety,” said Hicks. “Quite frankly, if any adjustments need to be made to the program then we’re going to make the adjustments to the program and we’re going to move forward.”

One of the attorneys questioning the program, Irven Box of Oklahoma City, said Monday that a male client of his from Colorado was pulled over by someone with the private company that is assisting the drug interdiction unit.

The man was arrested and charged for possessing marijuana, but Box said the case was dismissed on Friday because “more than likely it was an illegal arrest” since the person who made the stop was not a certified law-enforcement officer.

Box said he thinks Hicks’ intentions for the program and its funding were good.

“But the bottom line is there is an appearance of something wrong here because someone making the stop, or associated with making the stop, is going to profit,” he said. “Desert Snow, under contract, would benefit personally from the amount of the seizure.”  

According to a story by The Oklahoman on Sunday, the program also has drawn the ire of Special Judge David A. Stephens of Caddo County.

The judge expressed shock after learning that the owner of Desert Snow pulled over a woman driver and questioned her even though he was not a state-certified law enforcement officer.

The woman’s attorney, Al Hoch of Oklahoma City, told The Banner on Monday that his client was arrested on Feb. 22 and charged with having about 20 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute.

He said she was in jail, unable to post a $250,000 bond, until July 2 when Hicks’ office dismissed the case following an evidence suppression hearing before Judge Stephens.

Hicks said Monday that the arrest was made by a certified officer with the Bureau of Indiana Affairs who is a member of the task force.

But Hoch said the Desert Snow employee initiated the police lights, made the stop and took part in questioning. He said you cannot be an investigator without being certified.

“There is a major problem in that, and even though he (Hicks) believes he can have a contingency contract that is supposedly under a training issue, there is nothing we can find that allows you to ... give money away to some private enterprise,” Hoch said.

Hicks said the company founder, Joe David, is a retired officer from the California Highway Patrol and that Desert Snow has trained between 40,000 and 50,000 officers in drug interdiction throughout the U.S.

He said the training has benefited officers with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, among other agencies.

“It’s not as if this was just some fly-by-night company,” Hicks said. “This is a very prestigious company that trains these officers. They train the best of the best.”

Hicks said he looked into the company after learning from a DEA seminar that federal funding that pays for the Drug and Violent Crime Task Force and pays for two of his investigators would not be available in the near future.

He said funding for the task force already has been cut by $50,000 over his first two years in office, even though the force is essential in nabbing drug dealers.

The training has included nuances and clues to look and listen for during stops that can indicate drugs are involved, Hicks said. The perpetrators are often pros at drug trafficking and some have ties to Mexican cartels.

Hicks said the full intent of the program is for training purposes, and when questions about the contract arose, he took it to the state auditor’s office and had it reviewed.

He said he was told by that office that the funds seized lawfully could be used for training purposes.

In every criminal case and money forfeiture, the arrests were made by someone with his drug unit even though an instructor with Desert Snow might have been present, Hicks said.

It is possible that some of the cases he dismissed because of questions could be re-filed later, he said.

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