Federal court indicts ex-Rohnert Park officers for extortion
Two former Rohnert Park police officers accused of impersonating federal agents and seizing money and marijuana from drivers they pulled over have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of extortion.
The indictment filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco Tuesday accuses former Sgt. Brendan Jacy Tatum and former Officer Joseph Huffaker of extortion under color of law and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of law. Tatum was also accused of tax evasion and falsifying records in the federal investigation.
Prosecutors say the two officers and others pulled drivers over on Highway 101 in 2016 and 2017, seized cash, pot and property, then allowed motorists to go if they did not contest the seizure.
At times, the indictment alleged, Tatum and Huffaker pretended to be agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They also sometimes drove in unmarked cars without their body cameras and failed to report the contraband to their department.
Federal prosecutors also claim Tatum falsified police documents to cover up his activities after authorities began to suspect him. Financial records show a trail of nearly $450,000 in cash Tatum never reported for tax year 2016, according to prosecutors.
If convicted, Tatum could be sentenced to up to 65 years in prison. Huffaker faces a maximum sentence of 60 years.
Tatum and Huffaker were not in custody, according to court records.
The defendants were charged with nearly identical crimes by a magistrate judge in March, but felony cases must be brought before a grand jury for indictment, unless the defendants agree to waive that constitutional right.
Attorneys for Tatum and Huffaker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Investigations into the officers began in 2018 when a driver, identified as Zeke Flatten, reported that he was unlawfully stopped and his marijuana taken by suspicious officers. A cascade of complaints from others with similar claims followed.
The indictment describes one incident in December 2016, when Tatum and Huffaker stopped a victim while on duty near Cloverdale and extorted about 20 pounds of marijuana. According to the complaint against them filed in court in March, the two officers allegedly conspired to extort a total of at least $3,700 in cash and 60 pounds of marijuana with a value of at least $85,000.
Tatum was employed by the department for 15 years. Huffaker was there for seven.
Police may seize property connected to a crime, but legal procedures must be followed.
A Press Democrat investigation found that Rohnert Park officers legally seized far more cash and valuables from motorists and others suspected of breaking the law than any other local agency.
The department reported seizing more than $2.4 million between 2015 and 2017 through asset forfeiture. Some of those proceeds helped boost Rohnert Park’s public safety budget, some went to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office and the remainder to state law enforcement programs.
In early 2020, Rohnert Park paid $1.5 million to settle federal civil rights lawsuits from eight drivers who said Tatum, Huffaker, and as many as 50 other unnamed local police officers robbed them of money and marijuana after they were pulled over on Highway 101 near the Mendocino County line.
Rohnert Park police referred requests for comment to the city. A city spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tatum joined the department in 2003 and resigned in June 2018. Rohnert Park paid $75,000 for Huffaker, who joined in 2012, to resign in 2019 after an internal investigation found he “engaged in misconduct that warrants termination.”
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 602-736-5270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @vv1lder.