Federal judge: Rohnert Park ‘fails’ to train its officers; new guidelines ordered for probation searches

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A federal judge Wednesday ordered Rohnert Park’s police force to overhaul its training of officers to ensure they follow the law in probation searches. The ruling comes in the wake of a jury’s decision that three of the city’s officers violated the rights of a local family during a 2014 warrantless home search.

Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim ruled “that there are systemic problems in the way that the City of Rohnert Park fails to train its police officers,” according to her 14-page decision filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Kim’s order follows the Nov. 1 verdict by a federal jury in favor of longtime Rohnert Park residents Elva and Raul Barajas, who sued the city and three of its officers on claims that the police violated their civil rights when officers searched their home Nov. 4, 2014.

“This is a fantastic order. It’s essentially what we’ve been asking for since the day we filed (the lawsuit),” said the Barajases’ attorney Arturo Gonzalez. “All this family ever wanted was for the officers and the city to get training. For reasons I don’t understand, the city has been resistant, and now the judge has ordered them to do so.”

It is the latest legal blow against Rohnert Park’s Department of Public Safety, which last year saw its longtime chief abruptly retire amid heavy public scrutiny of the agency’s aggressive effort to seize marijuana and cash on Highway 101, often far outside city limits. At least two motorists have filed federal lawsuits against the department, which remains the subject of an outside review launched by the City Council.

At the time of the warrantless search five years ago, the city’s officers were looking for the Barajases’ adult son, Edgar Perez, who was on probation stemming from a felony drug possession conviction. He was not home when the officers arrived, including then-Officer Brendon Jacy Tatum, who slipped through a back door of the family’s house with his gun drawn, then holstered the weapon before taking the Barajas family by surprise.

The Barajases claimed in their lawsuit that while police may have had the authority to search Perez, the officers violated his law-abiding family members’ constitutional protections against warrantless searches when they looked into every room and closet in the house.

“You can’t go barging into the parents’ house whenever you want just because the son or daughter is on probation. That’s what’s so important about this case,” Gonzalez said.

Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said the city was reviewing the judge’s ruling and wasn’t yet prepared to comment on her order. He said they have not yet decided if they will appeal the jury’s verdict. The other officers involved in the 2014 search are Matthew Snodgrass and Dave Rodriguez, who has since retired.

Gonzalez said Kim’s order — a federal ruling that affirms the jury’s verdict and issues court-ordered requirements the city must follow — has precedent- setting potential for other cases when police conduct routine probation searches in non-emergency situations and impact the rights of other law-abiding people, particularly roommates or family.

In her decision, the judge noted that Rohnert Park had no written policy to guide its roughly 70 officers on probation searches. She ordered the city’s public safety department to create written procedures and put its officers through a new two-hour training program before the end of the year.

The judge also noted that key portions of the officers’ testimonies were not credible, particularly the reasons they gave for suspecting Perez was selling methamphetamine and their reasons for searching the Barajases’ home, according to her written decision.

The case involved a routine probation check with the officers looking for Perez to determine if he was following court-ordered requirements following his conviction for drug possession.

A central element in the case involved Tatum’s decision to slip around the side of the house and enter the Barajases’ home through a back door with his gun drawn. State law prescribes procedures commonly known as “knock and notice” that require officers to knock on the front door and make an announcement about their presence and purpose coming to a house.

Tatum testified that he heard his partners say they’d made contact with the residents before he went into the home, but the judge said she didn’t believe him.

“Officer Tatum entered the house before he knew if Officers Rodriguez and Snodgrass had contacted the residents of the home,” Kim wrote in her decision. “Although Officer Tatum testified to the opposite, the Court does not find Officer Tatum’s testimony on this subject to be credible.”

The jury found that Tatum’s maneuver through a back door with his gun drawn amounted to negligent behavior, and awarded the Barajases $70,000 in punitive damages due to his actions. That came on top of the $75,000 award to the family for the civil rights violations, plus attorneys fees.

Tatum, who was promoted to sergeant in 2015, resigned last year under an internal probe into his actions leading the department’s drug and cash seizure operations targeting motorists. Over three years ending in 2017, that crackdown netted the city assets worth more than $2.4 million, more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County.

Kim rejected the Barajases’ request to order Rohnert Park to prohibit its officers from entering a home from a back door during probation searches or bar officers from searching all rooms in cases that don’t involve emergencies. Kim noted that the new training and policies she mandated were “sufficient to ensure that officers will not make the same error in the future.”

The city must provide the court with proof it has complied with the judge’s orders to complete the training by Dec. 31 and has provided all officers a copy of the order.

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

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