Former Rohnert Park police officers charged with extortion in drug and cash seizures from motorists
Two former Rohnert Park police officers were indicted Friday morning on federal charges of extortion, a stunning revelation following years of allegations that highway drivers were being robbed of cash and marijuana during traffic stops by some of the city’s public safety officers.
Former Sgt. Brendan Tatum and his drug enforcement partner, former Officer Joseph Huffaker, appeared in separate back-to-back hearings held virtually before U.S. District Court Judge Sallie Kim to unseal the felony indictments against them.
Tatum, 38, who goes by his middle name, Jacy, faces a maximum of 45 years in federal prison if convicted of the charges, which include falsifying records and tax fraud. Huffaker, 36, could face up to 20 years in federal prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Frey said during the hearing.
Both men were out of custody and allowed to remain free.
Friday’s indictment was validation of claims that have dogged the city for several years that some of its officers were engaged in criminal activity far outside city limits.
City officials Friday said in a statement they had cooperated fully with federal investigators and emphasized the case involved past activity and a “now defunct marijuana interdiction program.”
“The City of Rohnert Park does not tolerate corrupt and unethical practices within the ranks of its employees, particularly its sworn peace officers, and those officers involved in today’s charges are no longer employed by the City,” according to the statement issued by Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz.
Early last year, Rohnert Park paid $1.5 million to settle federal civil rights lawsuits from eight drivers who said the Public Safety Department’s officers — including Tatum and Huffaker — robbed them of money and marijuana after they were pulled over on Highway 101 near the Mendocino County border.
Tatum was once a celebrated officer. He was brought before the City Council in 2015 and commended for his passion for combating illegal drug activity. Tatum thanked city officials “for giving me the opportunity to work the highway to fight the war on drugs.”
Tatum’s attorney Stuart Hanlon called the indictment “an overreach of government.”
“He believes he’s innocent and we’re going to defend against these charges,” Hanlon said. “He’s also done a lot of arresting of guilty people and has been involved in taking a lot of drugs off the illegal market. Whether he overstepped the bounds, which is what people say, you can’t forget the flip side: He was involved in police work that people wanted.”
Huffaker couldn’t be reached through his attorney.
Federal prosecutors claim body cameras worn by Tatum and Huffaker recorded traffic stops on Highway 101 in 2016 and 2017 when they seized cash and marijuana from drivers — but never reported the alleged contraband to the department or booked it into evidence.
The officers “extorted marijuana and cash from drivers on Highway 101 under color of official right, threatening to arrest drivers if they contested his seizures of their property, which he then kept for himself without reporting or checking into evidence,” the complaint says.
In one instance, Tatum and another officer found about $3,700 and 14 pounds of marijuana in a vehicle they stopped Aug. 25, 2016, on Highway 101 near Cloverdale, according to the indictment. Federal investigators found no records about this stop or the contraband seized, apart from body camera video.
The man told Tatum he was hauling the marijuana for someone else and the money was from his work as a taxi driver. After asking about the type of marijuana in the vehicle, Tatum said he was seizing the contraband but “you can have your freedom today,” the complaint said.
Tatum gave the man no citation or record of the cash and cannabis taken and the department had no record of the contraband, federal officials said.
When the man complained about the officers taking his money, saying it was a gift for his wife, Tatum had a reply.
“There is no such thing as easy money,” Tatum said in the video, according to the indictment.
Federal prosecutors claim Tatum falsified police documents to cover up his activities after his actions came under scrutiny. Financial records show a trail of nearly $450,000 in cash Tatum never reported for tax year 2016, according to prosecutors. He allegedly deposited the money in small amounts — under the threshold that might trigger an audit — into family members’ bank accounts and in cashier’s checks to buy a costly fishing boat.