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Federal Jury: Rohnert Park Police Violated Couple’s Constitutional Rights

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The Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse in San Francisco on March 6, 2018. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

A federal jury found Thursday that Rohnert Park and three of its police officers violated the constitutional rights of Elva and Raul Barajas during a 2014 warrantless search of their home. Former officers David Rodriguez and Jacy Tatum and Officer Matthew Snodgrass argued the search was a routine compliance check on the couple’s adult son, Edgar Perez, who was on probation.

The jury of eight men and women determined the search was illegal and awarded the Barajas couple $75,000 in damages and $70,000 in punitive damages against former Sgt. Jacy Tatum, who entered the residence through the back door with his gun drawn. The city will also have to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, according to their attorney, Arturo González.

The verdict concludes a four-day trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco presided over by Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim.

González said he spoke to his client, Elva Barajas, as soon as he heard the verdict.

“She began to cry,” he said. “She didn't think that anybody would listen to her. She's somebody who's never gone to school at all, doesn't speak English. ... What this lawsuit shows is that at least in San Francisco, even humble people — if given the opportunity — can can get a jury to understand that they have rights.”

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In closing arguments Tuesday, Scott Lewis, the attorney for the City of Rohnert Park, said Elva Barajas’ anger was misplaced, and pointed out an individual conspicuously missing from the trial — her son, Edgar Perez.

“He’s never come to defend his mother,” Lewis said in closing arguments on Tuesday. “He’s never come to defend his father. He’s never come to defend this case.”

Lewis said the true cause of Elva Barajas’ pain and suffering was her son, not the police.

Expectation of Privacy

The jury had to determine if the search was unreasonable under the U.S. and California constitutions. While the terms of Perez’s probation did decrease his expectation of privacy, the judge said police are supposed to consider a number of factors before searching a home, including the probationer’s history of violence and the privacy rights of other people in the home.

“Let's be clear. My clients have a right to privacy in their own home, even if their son is on probation,” González said. “They have a right to privacy in their own home.”

Perez pleaded no contest in 2012 to a misdemeanor for resisting arrest after an altercation with Tatum and Rodriguez two years earlier. He was placed on three years’ probation. For two other incidents, Perez pleaded no contest to misdemeanor drug use and felony possession.

Lewis argued that Perez’s history of drug use and probation violations made him a perfect candidate for the kind of search officers executed on Nov. 4, 2014.

He said it was up to the jury “to protect that very important community caretaking tool” of probation searches by finding for the officers.

González acknowledged Perez's addiction, but he argued that their son's criminal history alone did not give police the authority to violate the constitutional rights of the Barajas couple in their home.

“We are not here to say you can't do probation searches,” González said. “It's not what this case is about. You can do probation searches, but you have to do it in compliance with the law.”

The jury agreed. González said he hopes other law enforcement agencies take note of this verdict.

“If there are other agencies that are following the same policies or practices, they've got to change,” González said.

Reasonableness

The jury determined all the officers participated in an unreasonable search, but that only the actions of ex-cop Tatum amounted to negligence and a violation of privacy.

Tatum entered the home through the back door with his gun drawn. The jury awarded the Barajas couple $70,000 for his conduct alone.

González said the city shouldn’t have to pay those punitive damages -- because they’re meant as punishment specifically for Tatum’s conduct.

“Tatum is on the hook for that $70,000 award,” González said. “The city does not have to pay that. And in my opinion the city should not pay that.”

Tatum stopped working for the city in June amid an internal investigation into suspicious seizures of marijuana and cash along Highway 101.

City Liability

In a rare decision, the jury also found the City of Rohnert Park liable for violating the Barajases’ Fourth Amendment rights.

González said the city encouraged a variety of constitutional violations through its policies and lack of training around probation searches, and the jury appears to have agreed.

“The City of Rohnert Park, we argued, has a number of different practices that are unlawful,” González said, noting that Department of Public Safety leadership testified in the case that the officers did nothing wrong. “Now a federal jury unanimously has found that they violated the state and the federal constitution. So that's called ratification, and when a city ratifies misconduct, the city is liable.”

González expects the city will file an appeal, and he intends to ask the court for an injunction, forcing Rohnert Park to change its probation search policies. A hearing on that injunction is scheduled for Jan. 7.

Lewis, the city’s attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He previously said these officers all acted within the law, and probation searches like that of the Barajas' home are essential for public safety.

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