Rohnert Park settles cases with 8 drivers alleging drug officers stole marijuana and money
Eight drivers who said they were robbed of money and marijuana by Rohnert Park public safety officers settled their federal civil rights claims against the city this week for undisclosed sums, the latest legal battle to end for a city dogged by misconduct accusations against its former drug enforcement officers.
The settlement agreements conclude two separate cases brought by plaintiffs who claimed Rohnert Park officers wrongly took about 380 pounds of cannabis and $62,000 in cash during eight traffic stops and accused the officers of keeping some of the contraband for themselves.
They said the thefts occurred when they were pulled over on Highway 101 by the officers — sometimes wearing commando-like uniforms with tactical vests without department logos — in roadside stops far outside Rohnert Park city limits near the Mendocino County border. In one instance, the driver thought the officers were fake cops and called 911 after they left.
Four of the five law enforcement officers named in the lawsuits that led to the settlements have since left the department, including former drug enforcement partners Joseph Huffaker and Brandon “Jacy” Tatum, once the city’s most lauded drug officer who resigned in 2018 amid a department investigation. Last year, the city concluded Huffaker “engaged in misconduct that warrants termination” and paid him $75,000 to resign in order to avoid the costly process of firing him.
Rohnert Park officials have said the department strengthened supervision of its officers and evidence booking procedures following a departmentwide audit prompted by the allegations.
“It took some time, but I feel that the city of Rohnert Park heard me, and I feel like they have taken responsibility for their department,” said one of the plaintiffs, Huedell Freeman, a longtime cannabis grower in Mendocino County, who said the officers took the entire 2016 harvest he was bringing to a dispensary. “I’m satisfied with the outcome.”
Freeman sued the city in December 2018. In August, additional drivers came forward with similar stories and accused the city of allowing corruption to take hold within the police department in a federal racketeering lawsuit. Those plaintiffs are Joshua Surrat, Jason Harre, Terrence McGilbra, Brian Payne, Jacob Ford, Jesse Schwartz and Sean Haar.
A Rohnert Park official Thursday said the city would try to respond to The Press Democrat’s questions about the settlements but did not provide any information. Neither Tatum and Huffaker nor their attorneys could be reached.
Typically, defendants do not admit wrongdoing in out-of-court settlements. The terms, including financial payouts, will remain confidential for one year, said Izaak Schwaiger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
“We’re not going to get individual accountability from these officers, but we do know that four of the people responsible are no longer at that department — that’s a huge accomplishment and a rare one,” Schwaiger said.
Former Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Brian Masterson also was a named defendant in the cases. Masterson retired in July 2018 when these allegations about roadside stops were just coming out.
City officials have repeatedly defended the integrity of their public safety department. The city previously has responded to Press Democrat questions about its officers’ conduct with statements about city surveys that indicate most residents are pleased with the services they provide. But most of these roadside stops involved work the department’s officers conducted about 40 miles outside city limits near Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and the Mendocino County border.