Jury: Rohnert Park public safety officers violated couple’s civil rights

A federal jury in San Francisco reached a verdict Thursday finding three Rohnert Park public safety officers violated the civil rights of a local family during a 2014 warrantless home search by police looking for their grown son, concluding a trial that will force the city to change some of its search procedures.

The eight-person jury awarded Elva and Raul Barajas $75,000 in damages for the city’s breach of their federal and state constitutional rights plus an additional $70,000 in punitive damages because of the actions of embattled ex-cop Brendon Jacy Tatum. He slipped in through a back door of their home, initially with his gun drawn, according to court testimony.

The officers - Tatum, Officer Matthew Snodgrass and Dave Rodriguez, who has since retired - went to the Santa Barbara Drive home on Nov. 4, 2014, for a routine probation check looking for Elva Barajas’ son Edgar Perez, then 35, who had a felony drug possession conviction.

The four-day trial in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim tested the boundaries between law enforcement’s duty to check probationers are following the rules and the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless, unreasonable searches for probationers’ family members.

The case also spotlights the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department at a time when its leadership and oversight of its officers have come under public scrutiny. The city has hired a police auditor to conduct a broad investigation into the department’s policies and practices.

“The city has taken the position from the beginning that they’ve done nothing wrong, even when it came out that Tatum came into the house with his gun drawn,” said Arturo Gonzalez, an attorney for Elva and Raul Barajas. “Well, the jury came back and made it pretty clear that they violated both the state and federal constitutions.”

The city must pay the Barajases $75,000 and attorney fees, which Gonzalez estimated could be up to $500,000.

Tatum is on the hook to pay the $70,000 awarded by the jury in punitive damages for his actions they voted unanimously were negligent and unreasonable.

The five-man, three-woman jury agreed with the Barajas’ claims the three officers conducted an unreasonable search of their home in violation of California and federal constitutions. The jurors also agreed Tatum violated their rights to privacy.

The jury, however, found the officers’ actions did not constitute harassment.

Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said he does not yet know how the case will change search procedures involving families of probationers for the city’s public safety officers. The parties in the lawsuit will agree to those terms at a future hearing, tentatively scheduled in January. The city has not made a decision on whether to appeal Thursday’s verdict.

Schwartz defended the city’s public safety department, pointing to a independent city-commissioned review of the dual police-fire agency conducted earlier this year, which among its findings determined its officers solved crimes at rates higher than state and national averages.

“We respect the jury’s decision,” Schwartz said. “We’re pleased they recognized there was not harassment and that two of the three officers didn’t violate rights to privacy and were not negligent.”

Tatum, who resigned from the public safety department in June, and his attorney didn’t respond to messages from a reporter seeking comment.

During his 15 years as a police officer and firefighter in Rohnert Park, Tatum built a reputation as an aggressive cop and led the city’s missions to intercept illegal drugs and cash during traffic stops on Highway 101 - bringing in millions of dollars in cash and marijuana.

But a mysterious traffic stop on Highway 101 in Mendocino County involving unidentified officers seizing marijuana from a man who claimed the stop was unlawful led Rohnert Park in April to launch an investigation into Tatum and another officer.

Tatum’s actions at the Barajas’ home four years ago - coming inside through a back door with his gun drawn - was central to the plaintiffs’ claims their rights were violated.

Rodriguez and Snodgrass admitted in trial testimony that was not the plan. They had expected Tatum to be watching their backs and a side gate in case Perez tried to flee.

But while Rodriguez was trying to talk to Raul Barajas, who speaks little English, through a front security screen door, Tatum appeared inside, startling the Barajases and their daughter. At that point, Raul Barajas opened the door and allowed the other officers to come inside. The officers searched each room of the house then left, without finding Perez or any contraband.

Perez didn’t have a room in the house, although he kept some things there and would return periodically to sleep on the couch. His family testified he had battled a drug addiction for more than a decade and would often disappear for days, weeks or months at a time.

During the four-day trial, jurors heard from the three Rohnert Park officers, a sergeant and former Public Safety Director Brian Masterson, who retired in August, as well as three members of the Barajas family.

The Barajases said the incident has led them to fear police and feel unsafe in their home. The officers said they were merely trying to check on Perez, who listed his parents’ home as his address.

Gonzalez, the Barajases’ attorney, said they pursued the case even though their property wasn’t damaged and they weren’t physically harmed because they felt strongly the officers’ conduct was not proper and they received no response when they tried to address their concerns directly with the Rohnert Park agency before suing the city and the three officers in 2015.

Elva and Raul Barajas have lived on Santa Barbara Drive for 27 years. He has worked as a local garbage hauler for more than 40 years.

“I think the jury’s decision shows you need to respect the rights of the people who live with a probationer - and in Rohnert Park, they don’t do that,” Gonzalez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.

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