Rohnert Park to Settle One Lawsuit Over Illegal Pot Seizures as 5 More Plaintiffs Sue

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

Lawyers for the city of Rohnert Park have agreed to settle with a Texas man who sued the Police Department last year over three pounds of legal marijuana seized from him during a 2017 traffic stop. The city will pay Zeke Flatten $415,000, according to his attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, pending approval of the City Council.

The settlement represents "the most expensive marijuana transaction for 3 pounds of cannabis in the history of the United States,” Schwaiger said. “Rohnert Park just paid $138,000 a pound of marijuana to settle this case with him.”

Flatten’s suit accuses the involved officers of extortion, racketeering, obstruction of justice and money laundering. The allegations that a team of police officers operated like an organized crime ring are highly unusual, said civil rights attorney Schwaiger.

“As far as the RICO allegations, they're notoriously difficult to prove,” he said. “And we've got them dead to rights here.”

The city is not admitting any wrongdoing in connection with the payout, Schwaiger said.

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Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said the settlement is pending approval by the City Council and the city’s insurance group. He said they will have to make that decision before the first payment is due Flatten in October.

“Not only was this settlement a victory for my particular incident,” Flatten said in a phone interview Tuesday, “but also for all the other victims that never came forward or didn't even know who to approach to come forward.”

Flatten was the first of a string of motorists who spoke out last year alleging a pattern of unlawful cash and marijuana seizures by Rohnert Park police officers. A second man, Huedell Freeman, filed suit in December against the city.

Five more plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on Friday in connection with the city’s drug seizure program, alleging conspiracy, robbery, money laundering and racketeering.

One of the plaintiffs, Joshua Surrat, alleges former officers Jacy Tatum and Joseph Huffaker pulled him over for no reason, placed him in handcuffs and took 26 pounds of legal cannabis bound for a Santa Cruz medical marijuana dispensary from the back of his truck.

“Tatum then moved very close to Mr. Surrat’s face and said, ‘You don’t tell anyone about this either,’ ” the complaint says. “‘Not your lawyer, not the collective where the herb is going, no one. If we don’t hear from you, you won’t hear from us. If your lawyer comes calling asking around the department or anything like that, we will come up to your property in Ukiah. I bet we could find some more felonies if we came up there, huh?’”

Dale Allen, Huffaker’s lawyer, said the traffic stops detailed in the new complaint were thoroughly documented by police. Allen said Huffaker “continues to maintain he was not the person who stopped Mr. Flatten.”

Tatum’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

The latest lawsuit also accuses police officials of failing to put in safeguards that would have prevented the officers’ unlawful activity. The city also profited from the cash seizures.

Schwaiger says that while the tentative settlement of Flatten’s case is important, the larger goal of these lawsuits is to reform the historically troubled Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety

A federal jury awarded a Rohnert Park couple $145,000 in damages in November in a separate case involving Tatum illegally searching their home.

“We have a community that's suffered under their bad policing and it might now begin to turn around,” Schwaiger said. “And I don't want to be overly optimistic, but that is ultimately the goal in any kind of civil rights litigation, is to improve the communities that we live in and to protect everyone's rights.”

Schwartz said he couldn’t comment on the latest lawsuit, but he pointed to a third-party review of the department that “found we're providing a high level of service to our residents.”

“The officers that have been most closely associated with the marijuana interdiction concerns are no longer with the department,” Schwarz said.

Tatum, the former sergeant named in each of the lawsuits, left the department in June 2018 after the city launched an internal affairs investigation. Director Brian Masterson retired in August 2018. The city struck an agreement to force out former officer Joseph Huffaker in March of this year. And a commander who oversaw the interdiction program retired “a few months ago,” according to Schwarz.

Under the terms of the Flatten settlement, the details of an internal investigation done by the city into allegations against these officers will remain secret.

Schwaiger said that if the latest suit goes to trial, those documents will be unsealed, and that in itself will be a victory.

“Then the public will have a real detailed and disturbing insight into the inner workings of that police department,” he said.

Read the latest complaint below.