Healdsburg police officer fired for lying about marijuana gift, newly released records show
An investigation into an 8-pound shipment of marijuana that turned up unexpectedly at a Healdsburg business in 2016 started as a routine case of intercepted contraband.
It would eventually cost a police officer his job.
The details of what occurred at the business - and a one-month internal investigation by the Healdsburg Police Department into the conduct of its own officer - are documented in ?424 pages of investigatory files obtained this week by The Press Democrat. They give an unprecedented first look into the ways Sonoma County law enforcement agencies police themselves.
According to the documents, a woman at the unnamed business showed the suspicious package to then-Officer Ryan Howard. She said her adult son, a disabled veteran, had a doctor’s recommendation allowing him to legally use cannabis under Proposition 215 and asked if her son could keep some of the marijuana.
Howard allowed the man to take three packages, roughly 1 pound each, reasoning that the box was technically their property. He seized the remaining five packages of similar size, booking them as evidence at the police department to be destroyed.
In a police report, he said the box had only 5 pounds, not 8, and did not include his ?decision to give some of the pot away.
“I was thinking that I had not taken custody of the marijuana at that time … he had a legal right to possess marijuana for his use for, per the 215 card,” Howard would later say during an interview with a supervisor, according to a transcript. “I made a mistake. I’m more than willing to, you know, take my lumps, (take) more training.”
Efforts to reach Howard for comment through phone and email messages and through a lawyer named in the documents were unsuccessful.
Until this year, police personnel records involving cases of misconduct were strictly confidential in California. Even egregious cases of on-duty wrongdoings were rarely explained to the public.
But a new law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires law enforcement agencies to publicly release records of internal investigations into certain proven cases of misconduct including use of force, dishonesty and sexual assault.
The Press Democrat requested records of misconduct from all law enforcement agencies in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. Most departments have requested more time to review, redact and prepare the files.
Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said in an interview this week that his department has kept all internal affairs records dating back to 2001. After receiving The Press Democrat’s request, the department reviewed all 42 files on record and determined only one, the case involving Howard, fell within the categories of sustained investigations now releasable by law because it was a case of dishonesty.
“This case isn’t one of those that’s very dramatic - nobody was physically injured,” Burke said. “But it does give the public a sense of the standard we hold our police officers to. We do police ourselves in law enforcement when we have misconduct, and we take that pretty seriously.”
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the case illustrates how the honesty of police officers is “of utmost importance.”
“A lot of the attention will be focused on the high-profile instances of police violence against civilians or others, and those are certainly very important to let the public know about,” Snyder said. “But one of the main purposes of government transparency is for the public to be able to monitor how its servants, the public servants, are conducting their affairs, and whether the departments are investigating wrongdoing thoroughly and taking action.”
It’s not uncommon in Sonoma County and elsewhere in Northern California, the nation’s prime marijuana-?growing region, for people trying to illegally ship marijuana outside the state to put a random return address on the box so it won’t be traced to them.
That’s likely why the Healdsburg business, which wasn’t identified, was listed on two boxes brought to the Healdsburg Post Office by an unidentified person who paid to mail them to Belcamp, Maryland. For unclear reasons, the post office staff called the business listed on the return address and requested the package be picked up.
The marijuana giveaway might have gone unnoticed.
Howard’s actions came to light the day after he gave the marijuana to the man when post office staff called the business again and said they had another box for pickup. The business owner again alerted police.
Another officer dispatched to the store would discover Howard had given some of the cannabis to the business owner’s adult son.
Healdsburg police investigated Howard’s actions and eventually fired him for distributing a controlled substance and lying about the amount of marijuana in the box on a police report. They found no evidence Howard had gained anything from allowing the man to have some of the marijuana, Burke said.
The department consulted with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office about Howard’s case and confirmed he would have to be placed on the so-called Brady list, a designation that requires prosecutors notify defendants and their lawyers when an officer has potential credibility issues, such as lying in a police report.
Howard appealed the decision but an arbitrator affirmed the department’s decision in January 2018.
In an April 8, 2016, document explaining why he fired Howard, Burke said the decision was not based on Howard’s work ethic, noting he was “a well-liked and respected member of the Healdsburg Police Department.”
“How he placed himself in such a compromised position through the exercise of such poor judgment is something that has been difficult to come to terms with,” Burke said in the document.
“Since Officer Howard was willing to make false statements in an official police report regarding the seizures and destruction of controlled substances, I now have to assume that such behavior could likely repeat itself in the event he became involved in something more critical, when the personal stakes for him might be higher.”
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.