PD Editorial: Rohnert Park must explain asset seizure program

Rohnert Park police seized more than $2.4 million in cash and other valuables over the past three years - substantially more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County.

A chunk of that money goes straight into the department's budget.

At least some of the people whose property was seized weren't arrested or prosecuted.

Moreover, many of them were nowhere near Rohnert Park when they were pulled over by police.

You might call it policing for profit.

Officially, it's known as civil asset forfeiture, variations of which exist in state and federal law, allowing authorities to seize cash, cars and other valuables without proving that the owner committed a crime. Police need only suspect the property was connected to criminal activity, and the burden of proof falls on the owner to prove otherwise.

California lawmakers tightened the rules in recent years, and most local law enforcement agencies have scaled back their use of asset forfeiture.

Rohnert Park kept going, as Staff Writer Julie Johnson reported in two articles this week that focused in part on the actions of an ex-officer named Jacy Tatum, who is the subject of scrutiny, including a federal lawsuit and an internal investigation by his former employer.

Tatum frequently pulled drivers over on Highway 101 near the Mendocino-Sonoma County line, a route that connects marijuana farms in the Emerald Triangle to the Bay Area and other major population centers. He was decorated by the department, but he also has been accused of misconduct by people whose property was seized, and Sonoma County prosecutors placed him on an official list of unreliable witnesses.

Tatum is no longer employed by the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department, but officials there refuse to say whether he resigned or was fired, when he left or why, citing a state law that provides police officers with extraordinary protection against public disclosure, even in cases of official misconduct. Tatum says he quit, and he denies any wrongdoing.

Rohnert Park officials did confirm they are investigating whether Tatum was involved in a December traffic stop in Mendocino County in a which a former Texas school district cop says 3 pounds of marijuana was unlawfully seized from him.

Other curious incidents included a December 2016 traffic stop near Hopland, when Tatum and another officer seized $65,000 worth of marijuana from Hue Freeman of Mendocino, who said he was en route to make a delivery to a Southern California dispensary and carrying all the paperwork required by state law.

Police quickly secured an order to destroy the marijuana, but didn't seek criminal charges for four weeks. Prosecutors declined to charge Freeman, saying he was in compliance with state laws. Freeman said he has been unable to recover the seized marijuana. “They stole it from us,” he told Johnson. “That's what they did.”

In another instance, a Fairfield man said $10,000 went missing from $132,000 in cash taken from his car during a traffic stop by Tatum and another officer near Cloverdale in March 2016. Lucas Serafine, a professional gambler, said he was headed to a poker tournament and to buy property in Humboldt County when he was pulled over. He was never charged with a crime, and $100,000 of his money was returned. Serafine is suing the city, seeking the remainder of the money that was seized.

Perhaps the citizens of Rohnert Park will learn some more details about the former city employee if that case goes to trial. In the meantime, state lawmakers are considering legislation to provide public access to personnel records in cases involving the use of force or sustained complaints of misconduct by police officers.

We encourage lawmakers to approve Senate Bill 1421 and Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law.

Rohnert Park officials, meanwhile, owe the public answers about their police department's practices and the city's oversight of its police officers.

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