It seems something was very rotten in the city of Rohnert Park.
Lawyers representing the city agreed Aug. 20 to pay a Texas man $415,000 to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that Rohnert Park police unlawfully seized 3 pounds of legal marijuana during a 2017 traffic stop outside city limits. The settlement came just a day after five men — including Jason Harre, of Redway — filed a separate federal racketeering case against the city, alleging the police department engaged in a "conspiracy to commit theft, robberies, extortion, tax evasion, money laundering and obstruction of justice" during drug interdiction efforts along U.S. Highway 101.
Speaking to KQED, Ezekial Flatten's attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who's also representing the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Aug. 19, quipped that the settlement represents "the most expensive marijuana transaction for 3 pounds of cannabis in the history of the United States," noting that the city essentially paid $138,000 for each of the pounds police, claiming to be federal ATF agents, seized from Flatten in December of 2017.
Suspicions surrounding the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department's drug enforcement efforts first bubbled into public view when Southern Humboldt reporter and Journal contributor Kym Kemp reported Flatten's allegations in February of 2018. Allegations have since snowballed, as we reported in our June 9, 2018, cover story "Highway Robbery," which was reported in conjunction with KQED News and Kemp. The story detailed numerous allegations of irregular traffic stops along U.S. Highway 101 by Rohnert Park police well outside city limits that led to the seizure of cannabis and or cash.
Flatten alleged that he was driving a rental car south from Humboldt County with 3 pounds of legal cannabis he was taking to a Santa Rosa testing laboratory in 2017 when he was pulled over by an unmarked black Ford Police Interceptor just north of the Mendocino County line, about 50 miles north of Rohnert Park. Flatten said he offered to show the officers, who weren't wearing badges or identifying name tags, his doctor's prescription for medical cannabis but they declined. Instead, he said, the officers told him they were working for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and seized his cannabis, offered no receipt and told him he might be getting a letter from Washington.
"In less than five minutes, the officers had left the scene with Mr. Flatten's cannabis without ever having run his name for wants and warrants, and without so much as issuing a citation for even a traffic infraction," Flatten's lawsuit, filed in November of 2018, states.
The lawsuit specifically names two now former Rohnert Park officers it alleges were at the center of the department's criminal conspiracy — Joseph Huffaker, who was allegedly one of two officers who pulled Flatten over, and Jacy Tatum, an aggressive drug enforcement officer who developed a reputation for both large seizures and questionable tactics. While Tatum wasn't involved directly in the stop of Flatten, the lawsuit alleges he incriminated himself when he penned a fabricated press release Feb. 13, 2018, in response to Kemp's inquiries.
"When plaintiff came forward publicly, Tatum quickly sought to quash plaintiff's accusations by issuing a press release to whitewash the conspiracy," the lawsuit alleges. "But Tatum's statement to the press was too hastily contrived, and his involvement in the illegal seizures too prolific. As a result, his press release defended the wrong illegal seizure, and instead of diffusing the scrutiny plaintiff's allegations had brought, it brought the allegations more clearly into focus. Following the bogus press release, an internal investigation was launched at Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. Shortly thereafter, defendant Tatum resigned from the force, Defendant Huffaker was placed on administrative leave and the director of the department announced his retirement."
In March, the city of Rohnert Park agreed to pay Huffaker $75,000 in exchange for his resignation after an internal affairs investigation found misconduct the city felt warranted termination, City Manager Darrin Jenkins told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
The most recent lawsuit alleges that, in five illegal traffic stops carried out between November of 2015 and October of 2016, Rohnert Park officers combined to illegally seized more than 65 pounds of cannabis and $62,000 from the plaintiffs.
Harre alleges that he was travelling south on U.S. Highway 101 on Oct. 3, 2016, "lawfully transporting 34 pounds of medical cannabis to a medical collective in Los Angeles," when he was stopped near Cloverdale.
"Officer Huffaker and Sgt. Tatum were dressed in commando-like uniforms wearing tactical vests marked 'ATF' with chest holsters for their firearms," the lawsuit states. "The officers advised Mr. Harre that he had not been maintaining his lane, ordered him out of his vehicle and began peppering him with questions about whether he was transporting marijuana."
The complaint alleges the officers searched Harre's vehicle and seized 34 pound of cannabis and $7,000 in cash, after which they "continued interrogating Mr. Harre, asking him questions about the techniques he used to grow the cannabis, what strains he was transporting and other questions which Mr. Harre believed would only be relevant to a broker of marijuana looking to sell another person's product."
The complaint also details allegations surrounding the stop of Joshua Surrat in December of 2015. Surrat alleges he was also stopped near Cloverdale by Huffaker and Tatum, who searched his truck and found 26 pounds of cannabis.
"Mr. Surrat then explained that he was lawfully transporting the cannabis and he was in possession of all the required paperwork," the lawsuit states. "Tatum told him his paperwork was invalid. Mr. Surrat said he didn't think a judge would see it that way. In response, Tatum became enraged and told Mr. Surrat he had two options: The officers could seize his truck, his belongings and his marijuana and arrest him for felonies, or Mr. Surrat could surrender the cannabis and the officers would be on their way. Mr. Surrat answered, 'Obviously option B, if you put it like that.' Tatum then moved very close to Surrat's face and said, 'You don't tell anyone about this either. Not your lawyer, not the collective where the herb is going, no one. If we don't hear from you, you won't hear from us."
The complaint alleges the officers then took pictures of Surrat's driver's license and license plate. As the officers' car was pulling away, the complaint alleges it stopped and Huffaker rolled down his window to ask, "What strains are in here?"
Tatum and Huffaker also committed financial crimes, the suit alleges, noting they made transactions "with the proceeds of extortion with intent to promote their continuing racketeering" and filed "false and fraudulent income tax returns omitting the income from their robberies and extortionate seizures of cash and proceeds of the cannabis sold after acquiring it by theft and extortion." Furthermore, the complaint alleges the two former officers tried to conceal their profits by purchasing boats, automobiles, household goods and real property with their "unreported cash."
After the 2017 traffic stop, Flatten reportedly lodged a complaint with the FBI. It's unclear if the agency is investigating his and other allegations regarding the conduct of Rohnert Park police.
Schwaiger told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that the depth of the corruption in the city's police department isn't yet fully known.
"The best case scenario is we have a chain of command up to the city manager that is totally incompetent and unaware of what's happening in the department." he said. "The worst case scenario is the Department of Public Safety is an outright criminal enterprise that needs to be shut down, and that's precisely what we've alleged in this complaint. We believe that to be the case."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.