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Stephens Co. DA Hires Private Drug Task Force

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STEPHENS CO., Okla_ A state newspaper is reporting that Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks has recused himself from criminal cases involving a private drug fighting company.

Hicks hired a company called Desert Snow in January to work with and train his drug task force. The company gets 25% of money seized from drug dealers.

More than $1M seized since the beginning of the year has come from stops on I-40 in Caddo County. That's drawing criticism from a defense attorney who argues the money should go to the state's general fund. However, the state auditor believes the money can be used for training. A Caddo County judge is reportedly upset because the company's workers are not licensed by the state to make traffic stops.

Hicks said his officers actually made the arrests.

Hicks' office issued the following statement via press release to 7News:

"In January 2013, the District 06 District Attorney's office entered into an agreement with Desert Snow, an Oklahoma company, to train investigators in the area of drug interdiction.  Drug interdiction concentrates on catching traffickers moving large quantities of drugs and money through our State.  The goal of the training program is to ensure that Investigators with the District 06 Interdiction Unit are prepared to be effective in the area of the seizure of drugs and cash used in drug trafficking.  The training program is slated to last for a period of one year. 

The District 06 Drug and Violent Crime Task Force is funded by a federal grant, known as a "Justice Assistance Grant" or a "JAG" grant for short, and pays the salaries of 2 investigators.  District Attorney Jason Hicks stated that last year he understood that JAG funding for task forces such as his would not be available in the very near future.  He further noted that funding for his task force has been reduced by $50,000 over his first 2 years in office.  Hicks said "the District 06 Drug and Violent Crime Task Force is an essential tool in the apprehension of drug dealers in this District and I will not allow funding issues to cause the Task Force to cease to exist."  Hicks noted that he became interested in interdiction because of concerns over the loss of funds allocated through the JAG grant. 

The training program entered into between the District 06 District Attorney's Office and Desert Snow is a unique program in that it brings Desert Snow Instructors to the District.  In order to assist the District 06 Investigators, the Desert Snow instructors are commissioned as investigators with the District 06 District Attorney's Office.  Hicks noted that he commissioned the instructors as Investigators through the authority of Title 19, Section 215.35A in conjunction with Title 70, Section 3311 of the Oklahoma Statutes.  Hicks notes that there is criticism of the decision to commission the instructors, but firmly believes that he is within his discretion as District Attorney to commission the instructors.  The instructors with Desert Snow work hand in hand with District 06 investigators and at no time are allowed to operate an investigation alone.  The instructors with Desert Snow come from various backgrounds and are all involved as law enforcement officers across the United States.  Hicks said "the background of each instructor is impressive.  We have some of the best interdiction officers from across the United States here in our District training officers in the area of interdiction."

The program is in place at this time; however, Hicks noted that he requested his investigators to refrain from interdiction work on the highways while he and his staff address the criticism lodged against this program.  To address the concerns, the District Attorney's Office will review each case filed, the terms of the contract with Desert Snow, and the status of each instructor who holds a commission with the Interdiction Unit.  As part of the process, the District Attorney's Office dismissed the cases involving interdiction in the District.  However, those cases are subject to refilling at the conclusion of the review.  "If any modifications need to be made to the program, they will be made.  I fully believe we are in compliance with state law and at the time the program was formed my intent was to see that my investigators received top notch training and to ensure that we could continue the operation of the drug and violent crime task force."  Hicks stated. 

There have been additional complaints lodged that the contract between the District Attorney's Office and Desert Snow is not legal.  Hicks noted that Oklahoma Statutes allow for money seized as a result of drug activity to be used for training purposes.  Hicks said that when questions about the contract arose, he personally took the contract to the State Auditor's Office and requested a review of the agreement.  "After allegations were made that the contract was not authorized by statute, I took the contract to the Auditor's Office and was advised, after their review, that I can use the funds for training purposes.  The full intent of the contract is to train the investigators, nothing more" Hicks stated.

At the time the contract was negotiated, the training was not an option if an upfront fee was required.  As such, a creative way to fund the training program arose.  Desert Snow agreed to payment for training services of 25% of funds seized during a training operation with their instructors and 10% if the Desert Snow instructors are not on sight.  Hicks noted that even though the instructors are not on sight, they are "on call," which allows his investigators to utilize their instructors at a moment's notice.  "It is not uncommon for my investigators to call an instructor for assistance during the time the instructors are not on location" said Hicks.

The interdiction program is geared toward removing drugs and cash used in drug trafficking from our highways.  To date, the program has seized in excess of 100 pounds of marijuana and multiple ounces of cocaine, along with hundreds of pills and approximately $1.3 million dollars from drug traffickers in the District.  "The training program has been a tremendous help to the investigators assigned to my interdiction unit, in fact without it, I do not believe we would be where we are today" said District Attorney Jason Hicks. 

Hicks noted that the drugs seized by the interdiction team are destroyed.  After forfeiture by court order, the money seized from drug traffickers is divided between the agencies who have assigned officers to the District 06 Interdiction Unit, which are the District Attorney's Office, the Hinton Police Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Hicks also noted that the money seized and forfeited from drug traffickers is not state appropriated money and goes directly into the budget of those law enforcement agencies involved.  "At this time, it is my intent to use the forfeited funds to continue operating the Drug and Violent Crime Task Force and add an additional prosecutor and investigator to my staff" said Jason Hicks.  He also noted that he understood that the Hinton Police Department would be adding an additional officer and purchasing much needed equipment, and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs officers were discussing building a law enforcement training facility in Caddo County with their share of the forfeited funds.

"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."

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