Last Dec. 5, Zeke Flatten, a former police officer now working in the cannabis industry, was driving south through northern California’s Sonoma County on US-101 when he was pulled over by Rohnert Park police.
Rohnert Park is a small city in the middle of Sonoma County. According to Flatten’s account, given to independent journalist Kym Kemp, he had just crossed the Mendocino-Sonoma county line — meaning he was about 40 miles away from Rohnert Park — with 3 pounds’ worth of marijuana in his rental car.
Under California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, adults over 21 are allowed to possess up to an ounce of cannabis at a time — and much more than that, with a cannabis business permit from the Bureau of Cannabis Control. But according to Flatten, that didn’t matter. What mattered, Flatten alleges in a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed on Nov. 16, is that he had enough marijuana for the officers to steal.
The officers, wearing green military-style fatigues without badges, insignia, or nametags, told Flatten they were with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, according to the suit. They found and seized the cannabis within five minutes. They did not check Flatten for outstanding warrants, nor did they follow any of the other “normal procedures,” as Kemp reported. Flatten eventually identified the officers as Steve Hobb, who was at that time chief of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians’ tribal police, and Rohnert Park police Officer Joe Huffaker.
According to Flatten’s lawsuit, Huffaker and former Rohnert Park police Sgt. Jacy Tatum, engaged in a years-long conspiracy, a “custom and practice” to identify and detain drivers with legal marijuana for the purposes of seizing the cannabis in order to sell it for their personal profit — and, reminiscent of how the city of Ferguson, Missouri kept its budget afloat on the backs of black drivers given traffic tickets, in order to keep the Rohnert Park police department’s budget in the black.
“[W]hat’s been happening in this county and in Mendocino County for the better part of a decade now is wrong,” said Izaak Schwaiger, Flatten’s attorney, in an interview last week with KQED. “It’s organized crime. And it’s got to stop.”
Rohnert Park officials have yet to comment on the suit. In the past, however, both police and city officials have defended the police department’s drug interdiction program, which has continued even after California’s legal marijuana industry swells to the billions of dollars.
Marijuana-industry growers and transporters have long been suspicious of police activity along the US-101 corridor, the main highway connecting California’s Emerald Triangle, where most of the state’s marijuana is grown, and population centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. At least eight other drivers have since come forward to report experiences similar to Flatten’s, according to KQED.
Police in Rohnert Park have been singled out for particular suspicion. The police department seizes far more drugs and drug-related cash than other departments in the area, despite no clear patrol objective. (Again, Rohnert Park is a city not near the border of Mendocino County, and patrolling highways in California is the literal job of the California Highway Patrol.)
And as KQED’s Sukey Lewis reported in July, records for more than 800 pounds of marijuana seized by Rohnert Park police are missing from court files, despite court orders mandating that the marijuana be destroyed
According to the complaint, Tatum and Huffaker were members of a drug-seizure task force formed in 2013. They and four other officers attended training sessions for interdiction work organized by a private company called Desert Snow. Desert Snow also operates a “private surveillance database” called Black Asphalt. According to the suit, the officers used Black Asphalt to identify cars to intercept and detain, despite no probable cause for stops.
Tatum and Huffaker were placed on administrative leave earlier this year, with Tatum later quitting in June. (He had previously been named Rohnert Park’s “Officer of the Year” in 2015.) The lawsuit accuses them of seizing “thousands of pounds of cannabis and hundreds of thousands of dollars of currency” without issuing receipts for the seizures and without noting them in official reports. The cops later sold the seized marijuana to black-market dealers, according to the suit.
Since going public with his story, Flatten, who lives in Texas, says he has been subjected to harassment and surveillance. He believes that his phone has been tampered with, his wife followed down a dead-end street, and that a GPS tracking device was attached to his car. He has also received threatening, anonymous messages on social media, according to the suit.
According to public-employee salary data, Tatum and Huffaker were paid more than $200,000 and $187,100, respectively, in salary and overtime last year.
Neither the officers nor the city have yet to officially respond to the suit filed last week, according to court records.
TELL US, do you believe that the police officers involved stole marijuana?