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Probe Into Rohnert Park Cannabis and Cash Seizures Will Stay Secret, Despite Transparency Law

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Highway 101 in Cloverdale. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Even as a new police transparency law is opening public access to disciplinary records for officers across the state, Rohnert Park city officials said a misconduct investigation will remain secret, thanks to a deal city leaders struck with an officer on Tuesday.

The city has agreed to pay Joseph Huffaker $75,000 as a way of “guaranteeing he is never reinstated or otherwise employed with the City again.”

Huffaker was part of a small team of Rohnert Park officers focused on seizing drugs transported along Highway 101. He and then-sergeant Jacy Tatum worked a stretch of highway near Cloverdale, a small town about 40 miles north of Rohnert Park. From 2013 through 2017, Rohnert Park officers seized $3.6 million and 2½ tons of marijuana, according to police records.

The city launched an internal probe into Tatum and Huffaker's activities after several drivers came forward alleging their seizures were unlawful.

Tatum left the department last June, and Huffaker was placed on administrative leave. Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said the internal investigation wrapped up in July. In November, the city served Huffaker with a notice of termination.


“Huffaker does not believe he committed any misconduct, or that any discipline is warranted, and has indicated that he would appeal any discipline imposed,” a staff report posted on the city’s website says.

The settlement agreed to Tuesday was a way for the city to avoid “the costs of and potential uncertainties of any appeals,” according to the report.

Huffaker’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

KQED and the Bay Area News Group have requested all disciplinary records involving Rohnert Park officers under a new police transparency law that took effect on Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 1421 calls for the release of all records related to what’s called a “sustained” finding of dishonesty or sexual assault. That is the administrative equivalent of finding someone guilty of the alleged misconduct.

But Schwartz said records related to the investigation into Huffaker’s conduct will not be released, despite the city's effort to fire Huffaker, because the findings of that internal investigation were not “sustained.”

Glen Smith, a lawyer with the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, said the city's stance indicates a potential “loophole” in the law — officers under investigation for misconduct can resign in order to avoid a “sustained” finding and the disclosures associated with it.

“So at this point, it's a little bit of a jump ball as to where a court would draw the line and say, 'This is a sustained finding,' ” Smith said.

Rohnert Park is also facing two lawsuits in connection with marijuana seizures. Schwartz said he could not comment on how the Huffaker settlement would impact that litigation.

Additional records that may involve official dishonesty were also noticeably absent from Rohnert Park’s response to records requests under SB 1421.

Tatum was placed on a list of officers with credibility problems maintained by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office for lying in testimony during a 2016 case. Prosecutors had to dismiss at least two other cases involving Tatum for similar reasons.

However, the city of Rohnert Park said no officers, including Tatum, were disciplined for dishonesty in the past five years. The response indicates that either the city did not investigate those incidents, or it did not sustain any findings related to them.

Criminologist Phil Stinson from Bowling Green State University said that while he hopes the scrutiny of the new law forces bad cops to change their behavior, he fears it might have other unintended consequences.

“We might end up with situations where agencies simply don't investigate these cases because they don't want to have to make sustained findings,” Stinson said. “Or perhaps there won't be (fewer) investigations, but they just simply won't sustain the findings.”

This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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