Former sergeant under investigation led Rohnert Park’s aggressive role in asset seizures
Over the past three years, Rohnert Park's police officers have seized more cash and valuable assets from motorists and others suspected of breaking the law than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County. The total came to more than $2.4 million, nearly as much as the top two largest agencies combined.
In just one of those years, 2016, the record $1.4 million in assets seized by Rohnert Park amounted to 25 times more than what was confiscated by Sonoma County's largest city police force, Santa Rosa, which has two and half times more officers than Rohnert Park.
Many of the seizures happened along a remote stretch of Highway 101 near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line - more than 40 miles from Rohnert Park city limits. The traffic operations by Rohnert Park were ratcheted up even amid struggles to fully staff the department of 71-sworn officers and firefighters. They increased even as other local law enforcement agencies curbed or stopped their efforts, reflecting changes in state marijuana laws and a shift by local prosecutors away from taking lower-level marijuana cases to trial.
Rohnert Park's asset seizures also buck nationwide trends. Law enforcement officers across the country have steadily been seizing less cash annually from people, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics that show a 27 percent drop in money seized between 2012 and 2016.
Rohnert Park's aggressive, outsized role in such operations has come into sharp focus this year after the city's Public Safety Department launched an investigation in April into its top interdiction officer, Sgt. Brendon “Jacy” Tatum, who resigned in June after being on leave for nearly three months.
Tatum's boss, Rohnert Park Public Safety Department Director Brian Masterson, has refused to speak with The Press Democrat about the former sergeant, or answer questions about the city's Highway 101 traffic stops or his management of the department in general.
Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz, in an email response to The Press Democrat's questions, said that Rohnert Park participated in highway missions to “reduce drug trafficking.” He said they stopped those missions after a January 2017 meeting with prosecutors, who gave guidance on new procedures for asset forfeiture and marijuana enforcement priorities following marijuana's legalization.
“Rohnert Park participated in these efforts to reduce the flow of illegal drugs to Sonoma County, including the City of Rohnert Park,” Schwartz said in an email.
The highway operations have helped boost Rohnert Park's public safety budget, which was about $20 million for the fiscal year that ended in June. The budget included about $200,000 of asset forfeiture funds allocated to spend on public safety vehicles, according to Schwartz.
State and federal civil asset forfeiture laws give law enforcement a powerful tool to use against suspected drug traffickers by targeting their finances. Police can seize cash and other assets from people never convicted of a crime.
The seized cash and other valuables also help support the finances of local police agencies and district attorney offices, some struggling with tight budgets.
Critics of the laws allowing police to take people's property, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have said they create incentives for police to focus on profit rather than cases that result in convictions.
Highway interdiction in Sonoma County has primarily targeted people trafficking marijuana and cash along Highway 101 from Northern California's prime cannabis-growing region to large urban populations in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. But as a result, officers trying to interdict illegal drugs and black-market cash have also seized property from people trying to comply with the state's evolving set of medical marijuana laws.
“Anyone who has cannabis in their car is treated like they've done something wrong,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “That's persisted long after California decriminalized cannabis in 2010 and long after voters legalized cannabis in 2016. It embodies the failed war on drugs (and law enforcement agencies) that just won't quit.”
From 2015 to 2017, Rohnert Park reported a total of more than $2.4 million in seized cash and other assets, state records show. By comparison, in the Sheriff's Office, Sonoma County's largest law enforcement agency, with 230 field deputies - more than three times the number on patrol for Rohnert Park - reported in the same period a total of just over $1.9 million in seized assets. Santa Rosa, with 180 officers, reported forfeitures valued at more than $600,000, and Petaluma's 60-officer force reported seizures worth $260,000.