Ex-Cop’s Credibility Is Key Question in Federal Suit Against Rohnert Park

A Rohnert Park police squad car. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Former Rohnert Park police Sgt. Jacy Tatum testified in a federal civil trial Wednesday, while he remains under a separate investigation probing the ex-drug cop’s credibility and his prolific seizures of cash and marijuana.

The lawsuit filed against the city and three of its officers, including Tatum, by Elva and Raul Barajas in 2014 raises further questions about the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety’s policies and oversight.

The couple alleges that Tatum, now-retired Officer David Rodriguez and Officer Matthew Snodgrass illegally searched their home in 2014. Tatum entered through the home’s back door with his gun drawn, while the other officers talked with Raul Barajas at the front door. All three officers testified Wednesday that the search was a routine compliance check on the couple's adult son, Edgar Perez, who was on probation.

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Mystery Informant

The couple’s attorney, Arturo González, began by questioning Tatum about an earlier contact with Perez outside the same home in 2010. That incident ended with a physical fight between Perez, Tatum and Rodriguez, who used a Taser on Perez before taking him into custody.

González wanted to know why Tatum approached Perez while he was playing catch outside the home with his younger brother. And why did his story about the arrest change?

In Tatum’s original police report and later in testimony at criminal court, he said that he was driving by in his patrol car and stopped because he noticed Perez was sweaty and thought he was on drugs.

But in federal court Wednesday, both Tatum and Rodriguez testified there was a different reason they contacted Perez: A criminal informant told Tatum he would take the then-officer to his drug dealer.

“I said hop in,” Tatum said. “I have tinted windows.”

Tatum said the informant led Tatum to the home of Edgar Perez.

González anticipated Tatum’s shifting account before his testimony.

“He’s making this up as he goes along,” González told Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim before the jury was brought in. “And I know this because he’s done it before.”

Tatum testified that he got out of the patrol car and told Perez that he was investigating a hit-and-run involving Perez’s vehicle. This wasn’t true, but Tatum said it was a “ruse” to disguise the reason he was there and “de-escalate” the situation.

It didn’t work. When Rodriguez arrived on the scene, he said Perez was clearly aggravated. Then Tatum tried to do a field sobriety test.

“That’s when the fight started,” Rodriguez testified. “He tried to punch me and he missed.”

During the altercation, Rodriguez used a Taser on Perez’s neck.

That also didn’t work.

“We were losing,” Rodriguez said. They called a third officer to assist, and Perez was arrested and taken to the hospital and then to jail.

Perez initially faced battery and possession charges — officers found four grams of methamphetamine in his pocket, defense attorney Scott Lewis said in his opening statement Tuesday.

Perez pleaded no contest to drug possession and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to probation, which included a condition that officers could search his residence at any time during the day or at a reasonable hour of the night.

Shifting Testimony

When González asked Tatum on Wednesday why he did not mention the informant in a criminal court hearing related to Perez’s case, the ex-cop repeatedly said he did not recall testifying that the reason for the stop was Perez’s sweaty appearance.

So González showed the former officer a transcript of the hearing.

“Does this refresh your recollection?” he said.

“That is what the transcript said,” Tatum said. “I do not remember testifying to that.”

González asked both Tatum and Rodriguez why they also didn’t mention an informant in police reports about the 2010 arrest.

Both said they were protecting the informant.

“In the drug business if someone tells the police that you sold them drugs and then they get arrested and go to jail ... you’re going to be mad at that person who told the police about you,” Rodriguez said. “And sometimes people retaliate by using violence.”

Rodriguez said he didn’t know the informant’s name because the man was Tatum’s informant. Tatum said he did not know the informant’s name either. Neither officer could point to any records that could conclusively corroborate their testimony about the informant.

Credibility Questioned

“You’ve testified untruthfully under oath, haven’t you?” González asked Tatum at one point.

The courtroom fell silent as Tatum paused for a long moment.

“What are you referring to?” he finally answered. “I’m not sure. If you can refer to a certain point or case?”

“You’re aware of the fact you testified untruthfully in Superior Court in Sonoma County?” the lawyer asked.

Lewis then objected, and the judge told González to move on.

A KQED investigation found Tatum has had issues with credibility dating back to at least 2015, when his shifting testimony about the probable cause for a traffic stop led a judge to dismiss the case. In a 2016 case, four Sonoma County defense attorneys submitted affidavits declaring that they had reason to question Tatum’s credibility. In another case, Tatum’s reason for an arrest was disproved by body-camera footage.

He was placed on the “Brady list” of officers with credibility issues kept by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, according to four defense attorneys. Being on the Brady list meant, after that case, prosecutors had a duty to disclose evidence of Tatum’s past dishonest testimony to defense attorneys, who can use it to attack his credibility if he’s called as a witness.

However, the judge in the Barajas case excluded evidence related to any cases that came after the 2014 probation search.

Tatum’s personal lawyer, Stuart Hanlon, said he didn’t know the particulars of the ex-cop’s previous issues with credibility on the stand.

“I don't know of any case where his credibility has been proven to be false or bad,” Hanlon said. “You know there are stories in The Press Democrat basically talking about a lot of stuff, but my contact with Jacy, which is clearly not on the streets and highways and houses, is that he’s very, very direct and honest.”

Hanlon is a criminal lawyer, but he said he is not representing Tatum in any active criminal case.

Tatum said he had no comment when asked to speak about the case outside the federal courtroom on Wednesday.

Ultimately it will be up to the jury in the Barajas case to decide if they believe the ex-officer’s account of the 2014 search.

'Sanctity of One’s Home'

More broadly, the jury will have to weigh a key constitutional question: Even if Perez waives his Fourth Amendment rights, does that mean his parents waive their rights as well?

“This case is about the sanctity of one’s home,” González argued.

On Nov. 4, 2014, Tatum recruited then-Officer David Rodriguez and Officer Matthew Snodgrass to conduct two probation searches. At a previous house they visited, the officers found drugs and ammunition, according to their testimony.

At the time, Rohnert Park had disbanded a specialized unit that conducted probation searches, due to budget cuts, defense attorney Lewis said. It became every officer's responsibility to stop by probationers’ homes and search.

When they arrived at the Barajas home, the officers assumed different roles, Lewis said. Rodriguez, the “contact officer,” knocked on the front door. Snodgrass backed him up as cover. Tatum, the “catch officer,” was watching other exits.

Tatum walked around the back of the house and entered through a sliding glass door, with his gun drawn, according to his testimony.

“Going into a house through the back door with a gun drawn is a big deal,” González said in his opening statement Tuesday, arguing it was unnecessary and dangerous in this case.

Tatum testified that he pulled his gun because it was dark in the remodeled garage where he entered and the gun had a flashlight on it, but also because he believed Perez had a gun. Tatum said he holstered his gun before the family noticed him behind them.

Tatum said he had pulled Perez over a couple of times in the past and found him in possession of either methamphetamine or a meth pipe, but Tatum didn’t report the probation violation because Perez was his informant. Tatum testified that they had each other’s cellphone numbers and they spoke every month or two.

“If he’s your informant and he’s cordial with you, why did you have to go to his house with your gun drawn?” González asked.

“People that use drugs change, sir,” Tatum said. “And I’d never bet my life or my partner's life on a drug dealer.”

Once Tatum was inside, Raul Barajas let Rodriguez and Snodgrass into the home. The officers searched every room in the house, for a total of about five minutes, officers said. They didn’t find Perez.

González said Rohnert Park’s practice of searching an entire home during probation checks is illegal: Officers are allowed to search only the probationer’s room and any common areas.

“This search was unreasonable for multiple reasons,” González said, arguing that the city’s lack of policies specifically concerning probation searches gives officers too much latitude.

“That leads to abuse,” González said.

Lewis said that after officers at the front door provided “knock-and-notice,” Tatum had every right to enter the probationer’s home.

All three officers testified that they felt they were abiding by state law during the search.

In a somewhat rare example, the jury is considering a federal claim alleging Rohnert Park failed to properly train and supervise its employees, in addition to claims against the officers themselves.

Perez did not take the stand on Wednesday. González said he is getting treatment for addiction and that he may still testify.

At one point during his testimony, Tatum was overcome with emotion.

Lewis had asked him when he had started working as a police officer. Tatum paused for several moments before answering.

“2005,” he said finally, as he wiped tears from his face.

Tatum left his job in June amid the city’s investigation into questionable seizures of marijuana and cash along Highway 101.

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