As the Journal went to press Feb. 25, the city of Rohnert Park was set to approve nearly $1.5 million in payments to settle multiple lawsuits alleging its police force conspired to steal cannabis and cash during illegal traffic stops.
The settlements include $287,500 to be paid to Huedell Freeman, a cannabis farmer based in Mendocino County who alleged that officers illegally confiscated 47 pounds during a traffic stop, and seven other drivers who filed suit with similar allegations and are set to split $1.2 million. Last year, the city agreed to settle with Zeke Flatten, of Texas, for $415,000. The city has not admitted liability in any of the cases.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. These allegations were the subject of our June 14, 2018, cover story "Highway Robbery," produced in collaboration with KQED and local reporter Kym Kemp.
Flatten alleged 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, D.C.
"In less than five minutes, the officers had left the scene with Mr. Flatten's cannabis without having ever run his name for wants and warrants, and without so much as issuing a citation for even a traffic infraction," Flatten's lawsuit stated.
The lawsuits specifically named two now former Rohnert Park officers alleged to be at the center of the department's criminal conspiracy — Joseph Huffaker, who was allegedly one of the 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 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," Flatten's lawsuit alleged. "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."
The suit filed jointly by seven people last year alleges that Tatum, Huffaker and another officer combined to take more than 330 pounds of cannabis and $55,000 in cash but never appropriately documented the seizures and never destroyed or returned the cannabis.
Rohnert Park City Manager Don Schwartz told KQED the city's police department has been completely restructured to "improve oversight and accountability," while strengthening its seizure, evidence storage and reporting requirements.
That's all good, to be sure, but what about some criminal culpability for the officers? After all, if the allegations are correct, they engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud and extort, filing false tax returns to hide the illicit income from their robberies, which were carried out under the color of authority. It seems there should be some accountability for those who abused the badge to prey upon people who were working to bring an industry into the light of day according to the regulatory safeguards put in place by the state of California.
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