A controversial police tactic that lets cops seize large amounts of suspicious cash has been aided by a family-owned company that won millions in federal contracts, Robert O’Harrow and Michael Sallah write in The Washington Post.
That company, Desert Snow, has trained cops around the US on the art of roadside asset forfeiture, which allows police to take cash or other assets they believe have been illegally obtained. Cops can take these assets from people even if they’re never convicted of or even charged with a crime, and people must go to court to get their stuff back.
In five years, cops trained by Desert Snow seized $US427 million from motorists stopped on America’s highways, the Post found.
The company, which retired California Highway Patrol veteran Joe David started in his garage in 1989, eventually won federal contracts worth $US2.5 million from the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and other agencies, according to the Post. David’s wife and kids still work there, and the contractor employs about 75 instructors and administrators (though it’s unclear how many, if any of these instructors work there full-time).
Federal government agencies like the Department of Transportation also have extensive training for cops on how to seize assets and drugs from vehicles, but Desert Snow appears to be the go-to private contractor to train cops in asset forfeiture. Here’s how that process works, according to The Post:
Desert Snow charges as little as $US590 for an individual for its three- and four-day workshop of lectures and hands-on training in such subjects as “roadside conversational skills” and “when and how to seize currency.” The firm often sets up its training in hotel conference rooms. The firm’s three-day “Advanced Commercial Vehicle, Criminal & Terrorist Identification & Apprehension Workshop” cost 88 students a total of $US145,000, according to a price list posted by the state of New Jersey.
The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have attacked the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which sometimes seizes cash from innocent people who often don’t have the resources or wherewithal to go to court to get that money back.
Indeed, the Post has detailed cases of innocent motorists whose cash police seized, including an unemployed 31-year-old who had borrowed $US2,500 from his dad and a construction worker whose life savings of $US13,630 was seized.
However, a representative from Desert Snow was quick to point out that the firm has also helped police seize thousands of pounds of drugs from motorists in the past decade. Moreover, much of the money seized fuels the drug war, according to the statement provided by David Frye, director of training with Desert Snow. (Frye also works as a sheriff’s deputy in Seward County, Nebraska.)
“These funds are often times used to support the lavish lifestyles of criminals throughout the world and we cannot forget that these monies are also used to support a great deal of violence in the ever competing war on drugs,” Frye said in an emailed statement.
The Post article contradicts the notion that most seizures by police are of drug money. Of $US2.5 billion in seized assets examined by the Post, 81% came from cash and property seizures where the owner was never indicted. There’s no easy way to know how many of the police officers involved in those asset seizures were trained by Desert Snow, though.
In any event, Desert Snow’s tactics have been criticised by the ACLU, a local attorney where the group trained officers, and a state judge in Caddo County, Oklahoma. The ACLU claims at least three of the company’s employees impersonated cops in Caddo County while working with them to stop motorists in exchange for 25% of the cash seized.
Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks put a stop to Desert Snow’s stops in July 2013 after the judge complained about its tactics, the Oklahoman reported at the time. Hicks’ drug force seized $US1.3 million during traffic stops after it hired Desert Snow.
Desert Snow’s founder Joe David reportedly upset Caddo County Special Judge David Stephens when he testified that he’d pulled over a pregnant driver and questioned her — even though he wasn’t a state-certified cop, according to The Oklahoman.
“For people to pull over people on I-40 without that licence is shocking to me,” the judge reportedly said. The judge then said he hoped David wouldn’t do that again, and that if he did, he’d be “wearing orange” soon.
In June, an investigation by Oklahoma’s attorney general revealed that Desert Snow was not guilty of criminal wrongdoing in Caddo County.
“It was a successful program, and that may be one of the problems that we had — we were too successful too quickly,” the district attorney, Hicks, reportedly said after the investigation cleared Desert Snow of wrongdoing.
Caddo County will not be working with Desert Snow again, though.
Here is the full statement from Desert Snow:
The Desert Snow Training Program teaches officers how to identify and apprehend criminals during every day, routine traffic stops. The learned techniques have helped officers seize hundreds of thousands of pounds of drugs over the past decade. With regards to currency, officers are taught that money should only be seized when probable cause exists that it is related to drugs, illegal gambling, prostitution, the sale of weapons, or from some other type of criminal enterprise.
Each year, police officers seize tens of millions of dollars. Most of this money is easily determined to be proceeds from drugs. In some cases, the transporters of the currency admit to what it is and in other cases the occupants claim to know nothing about the hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden in a secret compartment found in the vehicle they were driving. These funds are often times used to support the lavish lifestyles of criminals throughout the world and we cannot forget that these monies are also used to support a great deal of violence in the ever competing war on drugs.
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