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Rohnert Park settles cases with 8 drivers alleging drug officers stole marijuana and money

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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.

None of the plaintiffs were Rohnert Park residents and none of the traffic stops led to criminal charges against the drivers for illegal marijuana possession. Most of the stops occurred in 2015 and 2016, a time when California allowed marijuana to be grown and transported for medical purposes through legal dispensaries and collectives. There also was a thriving black market.

Law enforcement agencies had been for years conducting drug enforcement missions on Highway 101, a major thoroughfare between Northern California’s famous marijuana-growing region and the Bay Area, aimed at stemming the flow of black market drugs and money.

But even as most departments stopped conducting those missions, Rohnert Park continued, seizing about $2.4 million in cash and valuable assets between 2014 and 2017 from people suspected of committing crimes through a process called asset forfeiture.

Freeman had 47 pounds of processed cannabis in the back of his vehicle when he was pulled over Dec. 29, 2016, by Tatum and Huffaker for allegedly allowing his wheels to touch the white fog line on the right side of the highway, public records show.

Freeman gave the officers paperwork showing he was taking cannabis to a dispensary, and had them speak with his attorney over the phone. They took the cannabis anyway, a haul worth about $65,000, he said.

The seizure deprived him of his income for the year, but it also shattered his trust in police because he thought he had always tried to carefully follow medical cannabis laws in California and had until that experience had great faith in law enforcement.

“I’m in my 60s, and I have played by the rules for many years,” Freeman said. “I had a fundamental belief in the legal system, a fundamental belief in our police. And that was shaken by what happened, it was badly shaken.”

Freeman said he was reluctant to come forward until another driver made his case public.

In December 2017, Ezekial Flatten was pulled over near Cloverdale by two officers in tactical gear who quickly searched his trunk and left with 3 pounds of his marijuana. A former school district police officer from San Antonio, Flatten was disturbed by the encounter and began complaining to local law enforcement agencies, trying to identify the officers who pulled him over. Once he came to suspect it had been Tatum and Huffaker, he became the first to accuse Rohnert Park of civil rights violations for a drug interdiction stop. In August, Rohnert Park paid Flatten $415,000 to settle his case.

Schwaiger represented Flatten and said many other drivers subsequently came forward to report similar encounters with Rohnert Park police, including those eight involved in the most recent settlements.

“Once people started peeking under that rug, it got real ugly,” Schwaiger said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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