Ex-Rohnert Park Cops Indicted on Federal Extortion, Conspiracy Charges Linked to Marijuana Seizures

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

Two former Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety police officers were arraigned Friday on federal charges including extortion and conspiracy in connection with marijuana seizures made in 2016 and 2017. Both officers entered not guilty pleas.

In 2018, KQED first reported on a string of motorists who alleged then-Sgt. Brendan Jacy Tatum and his partner Joseph Huffaker unlawfully seized marijuana or cash from them during traffic stops along Highway 101.

Both Tatum and Huffaker are currently out of custody on bail, and the arraignment took place via Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions, with U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim presiding. The charges they face come with a maximum sentence of 60 to 65 years if served consecutively.

The indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Tuesday alleges that the two abused their power as police officers to extort people during traffic stops by “claiming to be ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] agents, threatening to arrest drivers” and then seizing their marijuana “without reporting or checking the seized property into evidence, or documenting or reporting the stop and seizure.”

Tatum’s lawyer declined to comment. Huffaker’s attorney, Heather Phillips, said in an email that she looks forward to presenting her defense “so that the entire story can be revealed and Mr. Huffaker's name can be cleared. He did not do this and we are confident that a neutral jury will see that.”

“It is easy to get an indictment, as the defendant and his attorney are not allowed to take part in the grand jury proceedings,” Phillips said. “It is solely a one-sided presentation of the prosecution's case, and the burden of proof is very low.”

The indictment details six traffic stops Tatum made in 2016, either with Huffaker or with another officer, while he was head of a drug interdiction task force. These stops were recorded on police body cameras, but they were never documented in incident reports, according to the indictment. The indictment also says Tatum also failed to get destruction orders for the approximately 60 pounds of marijuana seized during the stops.

In 2018, KQED reported that destruction orders were missing for hundreds of pounds of marijuana seized by Rohnert Park officers.

After the interdiction team was discontinued in late 2017, Tatum and Huffaker continued to seize marijuana from motorists, according to the indictment, but during this time they were out of uniform and posing as ATF agents.

The indictment alleges that the two would then sell the seized marijuana for cash.

Tatum also faces tax evasion charges. The indictment alleges that he used cash to buy cashier’s checks for the purchase a $46,835 fishing boat, and that he and his family members deposited a total of $396,224 in various bank accounts in increments of less than $10,000 that were never reported as taxable income. Bank deposits of $10,000 and up are automatically reported to the federal government.

Tatum left the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety in June 2018 after KQED reported on the allegations against him. The police chief and a number of Tatum’s supervisors also retired that same year. Huffaker left the department in early 2019 under the conditions of a settlement agreement he reached with the city.

Another lawsuit is filed

Zeke Flatten, the motorist who first came forward to independent reporter Kym Kemp in 2018 to say he had been robbed by police officers posing as ATF agents, filed a new lawsuit this month alleging that the conspiracy to seize and sell marijuana went far beyond Tatum and Huffaker.

Flatten has long maintained that Tatum was not present when he was stopped on Dec. 5, 2017. The suit alleges that the man with Huffaker that day was actually a Mendocino County sheriff’s sergeant in charge of the county’s marijuana enforcement team named Bruce Smith.

The suit alleges that on Dec. 22, 2017, Smith also seized 1,875 pounds of marijuana worth nearly $2 million from a “legally licensed distributor,” but “the seized cannabis has disappeared with no records proving it was destroyed.”

Three other plaintiffs are suing Mendocino County along with Flatten. They similarly allege that marijuana was taken from them illegally by Smith and by a California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer named Steven White.

Finally, the suit alleges that the defendants, who include the Mendocino sheriff and the district attorney, were operating as an organized criminal enterprise under the RICO Act, an anti-racketeering law.

Lawyers for the defendants all have moved to dismiss the case arguing that the evidence cited by Flatten and his fellow plaintiffs doesn’t meet the high bar required for a RICO case.

Lawyers for the county also pointed out that on Dec. 4, 2017, Smith began working for the Lake County district attorney and so could not have been acting for Mendocino even if he was involved in the Dec. 5 stop.

In a motion to dismiss, lawyers for White argued that there was nothing to connect him to the Flatten stop and that the other plaintiffs can’t sue him again because they are already suing him.

Last year, the city of Rohnert Park settled with Flatten and a number of other accusers for around $1.8 million.

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