Former Rohnert Park police Sgt. Jacy Tatum elected not to attend the opening day Tuesday of a federal civil trial in which he is a defendant because he was afraid KQED would be reporting on the case, according to an attorney representing the city.
The trial concerns a 2014 home search by then-officer Tatum and officers Matthew Snodgrass and David Rodriguez, who is now retired. While both issues deal broadly with Fourth Amendment issues, the case is unrelated to a KQED investigative series exposing questionable cash and marijuana seizures by Tatum and other Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety officers in recent years.
Tatum, aware of the "negative publicity" surrounding him, decided recently that he was unavailable for trial on the 2014 home search, said attorney Scott Lewis, who is representing Rohnert Park and the other officers named in the suit.
"Efforts have been made on multiple levels" to reach Tatum, Lewis told Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim Tuesday morning.
"He believes KQED is going to be here today," Lewis said. "He's trying to avoid a circus."
Plaintiffs' attorney Arturo Gonzalez said Tatum had been subpoenaed through the city and he's required to attend and testify at the trial.
"This witness is hiding from the court," Gonzalez told the judge. "He doesn't want to come because he doesn't want the media to exercise their First Amendment right, that's not unavailability. That's hiding."
Judge Kim said the circumstances were "unusual" and asked attorneys to file briefs on the legal definition of "unavailability."
Because Tatum quit his job in June, he doesn't share the same incentive other defendants have in attending the trial, Lewis said, adding that Tatum is now represented by another attorney.
Stuart Hanlon, who represents Tatum in other matters, said potential press coverage had nothing to do with Tatum’s decision on whether to attend the trial.
“If you’re sued in a civil case, you can be there or not,” Hanlon said. “He chose not to be there.”
However, Hanlon said, Tatum plans to comply with a subpoena to testify in the case on Wednesday.
“This has nothing to do with KQED or any media being there,” Hanlon said.
The issues at the trial hinge heavily on Tatum's conduct when he, Rodriguez and Snodgrass approached a Rohnert Park home looking for Edgar Perez, who was on probation for drug and resisting arrest charges. Perez's probation included a condition that he submit to searches of his residence that would not require a warrant.
Rodriguez and Snodgrass knocked on the front door of Perez's parents' home late in the afternoon on Nov. 4, 2014. Tatum went around the back and entered the home with his gun drawn in search of Perez.
"Jacy Tatum knows that this man Edgar Perez is dangerous," Lewis said last week.
"It was rumored that he had a gun and he was dealing drugs. That was another one of the reasons they went over to his house and he went in with his gun drawn," Lewis said.
But Perez wasn't there. His parents, Raul and Elva Barajas were, as was another one of their sons.
"Our clients have a special-needs son," Gonzalez said last week. "And I can only imagine what could have happened if that special-needs son had turned the corner at the same time that the officer comes in with his gun drawn."
Plaintiffs Raul and Elva Barajas are arguing that the search of their home and Tatum's entry into it was unreasonable.
They say the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety routinely sought out Perez to harass him — not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose.
The trial is expected to finish by early November.
KQED's Sukey Lewis contributed reporting to this story.