A Texas man is suing the City of Rohnert Park and the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, alleging police officers from both jurisdictions violated his civil rights during a Dec. 5, 2017, traffic stop on Highway 101 in Mendocino County. The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court for California’s Northern District, alleges three police officers conspired to pull Zeke Flatten over, steal 3 pounds of marijuana from him and then sell it for their own personal gain.
The traffic stop was part of a “custom and practice” of illegal seizures by Rohnert Park police officers, the suit alleges, bringing in more than $1 million for the city’s Department of Public Safety.
“What happened to Zeke was wrong,” his attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, said in an interview Friday. “And what's been happening in this county and in Mendocino County for the better part of a decade now is wrong. It’s organized crime. And it's got to stop.”
Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz wrote in an email that the city has not seen the complaint yet and cannot comment. In the past, Schwartz has defended Rohnert Park’s drug interdiction program, saying it stemmed the flow of hard drugs and marijuana into the city.
The Hopland Band of Pomo Indians did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Flatten was driving in a rental car along Highway 101 just north of the Mendocino County line when a black police interceptor pulled him over, he said. Rohnert Park public safety Officer Joseph Huffaker and Steve Hobb, chief of police for the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, searched his vehicle and found 3 pounds of marijuana in his car, which they seized, according to the complaint.
“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,” the complaint says.
In the following weeks, Flatten reported the incident to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, the Mendocino County district attorney, the Mendocino County grand jury and the FBI.
Then in February, independent blogger Kym Kemp published an article that raised questions about the stop. Two days later, former Rohnert Park police Sgt. Jacy Tatum issued a press release to explain the stop.
“But Tatum’s statement to the press was too hastily contrived, and his involvement in the illegal seizures too prolific,” the complaint says. “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.”
Tatum and Huffaker were both part of an interdiction task force working “to reduce the flow of illegal drugs to Sonoma County, including the City of Rohnert Park,” according to a statement from city officials. Beginning around 2013, Rohnert Park officers seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana each year and millions in cash from drivers along Highway 101, mostly near the Sonoma/Mendocino county line.
The city paid for Tatum and Huffaker and four other officers to go to training sessions specifically aimed at interdiction work hosted by a private organization called Desert Snow. The officers also regularly used Black Asphalt, a private surveillance database operated by the same organization. In 2016, Tatum was awarded for the largest marijuana plant seizure reported to the site.
The officers used the surveillance network to identify "what automobiles to intercept, even though the drivers of those automobiles had committed no crimes to justify a detention," the lawsuit says.
The complaint claims that the city used the task force “to buttress the small department’s failing budget through the seizure of cash believed to be associated with narcotics transactions. Between 2016 and 2017, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety kept $1.2 million in seized funds for its own.”
The suit also alleges that Tatum and Huffaker weren’t reporting all the money and marijuana they seized, and were enriching themselves by selling the marijuana on the black market.
“I don’t think they’re smoking it all,” Schwaiger said, when asked what evidence he had that the officers were selling confiscated marijuana.
The city launched an internal investigation into the Dec. 5 stop in the spring, and placed both Tatum and Huffaker on administrative leave. In June, shortly after KQED reported on these seizures, Tatum left the department. A few weeks, later Rohnert Park hired former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan to investigate the city’s forfeiture policies and specific complaints related to seizures of marijuana and cash. Former Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson retired in August.
Stuart Hanlon, an attorney for Tatum, did not immediately respond to KQED’s request for comment.
Coming forward hasn’t been easy, according to Flatten. The suit alleges that he found a GPS unit hardwired to his car in September, and then received “an anonymous message via social media that he was ‘playing with fire.’ ”