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.