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Rohnert Park pays $1.5 million settlement to drivers alleging police officers stole pot, money

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The Rohnert Park City Council agreed this week to pay nearly $1.5 million to settle federal civil rights lawsuits lodged by eight drivers who claimed the city’s public safety officers robbed them of money and marijuana during roadside stops.

The drivers’ lawsuits claimed police took a total of 380 pounds of cannabis and $62,000 in cash from them. They accused the officers — including former drug enforcement partners Brandon “Jacy” Tatum and Joseph Huffaker — of keeping some of the contraband for themselves.

Council members Tuesday voted unanimously to pay $287,500 to Mendocino County cannabis farmer Huedell Freeman and another $1.175 million to be split among seven other men, all drivers hauling cannabis on Highway 101 who were pulled over by Rohnert Park drug enforcement officers during traffic stops far outside city limits.

The vote brought to light the financial terms of the settlement, which a city official in January declined to release because of a court confidentiality agreement.

“When these allegations first came to light, officials immediately launched an investigation,” City Manager Darrin Jenkins said in a statement. He noted the officers involved no longer work for the city and that no additional allegations of misconduct have come to light.

Tatum resigned in June 2018 while under investigation. The city paid Huffaker $75,000 to resign last year after an internal investigation found he “engaged in misconduct that warrants termination.”

The city hired an independent police auditor to examine Department of Public Safety policies. The city has since strengthened oversight of its officers and overhauled its procedures for property seizures, evidence storage, asset forfeiture, video surveillance and report writing.

“The City believes that settling these lawsuits is in its best interests of the City,” Jenkins said in the statement. “Settling the cases will be less expensive than costs of litigation and will allow the City to move on from these allegations.”

The drivers agreed to refrain from talking about the case for one year as part of the settlement. The agreement put in writing a sentence they and their attorneys are allowed to say about the case under the threat of the settlement being thrown out: “This matter has been resolved in the mutual interest of the parties to allow the parties and each of them to move on in peace.”

The city and its former officers admitted no wrongdoing.

Tatum and Huffaker, through their lawyers, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuits alleged the city allowed officers to repeatedly violate the rights of drivers ensnared in its once-sanctioned drug interdiction program, which sent city officers about 40 miles north of city limits with the mission of pulling over suspicious drivers and seizing contraband near the Sonoma- Mendocino county line.

Similar allegations first came to light in early 2018 when a driver, Ezekial Flatten, publicly questioned whether Rohnert Park officers illegally took 3 pounds of marijuana from his vehicle during a traffic stop near Cloverdale.

That stretch of the highway in northern Sonoma County and southern Mendocino County has long been known as “The Gauntlet” by people involved in medical marijuana and the black market drug trade. Law enforcement officers used to position themselves there on the highway to intercept illegal drugs and cash, but many agencies stopped their interdiction programs as medical marijuana laws allowed pot to be transported legally from farms to dispensaries.

Sebastopol attorney Izaak Schwaiger represented the seven plaintiffs — Brain Payne, Jesse Schwartz, Joshua Surratt, Jason Harre, Jacob Ford, Sean Haar and Terence McGilbra — who were stopped on the highway in 2015 and 2016. He declined to comment on the settlement or the case, other than stating the approved statement.

The payouts will be made by Rohnert Park’s insurance carrier, the Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund.

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

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