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.