A former Rohnert Park police officer who allegedly stole pot from drivers while heading a drug task force faces up to 45 years in prison for extortion, falsification of records and tax evasion.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Federal prosecutors charged two former police officers Friday with conspiracy to commit extortion for allegedly posing as federal agents and seizing state-sanctioned marijuana during traffic stops for personal profit.
Former police officers Brendon Jacy Tatum and Joseph Huffaker worked on a drug task force in Rohnert Park, a small city about an hour north of San Francisco. While on that team, they stopped vehicles along a 40-mile stretch of Highway 101 in Sonoma County.
In 2016, Tatum was put in charge of asset forfeiture in addition to his role as head of the drug task force. Officers were required to log all drugs and property seized from traffic stops. During his time leading the drug-busting team, Tatum won awards and reportedly seized over 4,000 pounds of marijuana, 20 firearms, a dozen vehicles and over $4 million.
But from at least August 2016 to December 2017, Tatum and other officers allegedly started seizing money, cannabis and other belongings from people during traffic stops without making arrests, filing reports or logging the seized property.
Prosecutors say Tatum would threaten to arrest drivers or seize more of their assets if they did not agree to let him take their cash, pot or other property.
“The public entrusts police officers to enforce the law,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Stephanie Hinds said in a statement Friday. “The public faith erodes when that trust is violated. The abuse of police powers cannot be tolerated and must be vigorously prosecuted.”
On Aug. 25, 2016, Tatum and another unnamed officer seized $3,700 in cash and 14 pounds of pot worth about $22,400 from one driver. The incident was partly captured by a police body camera. The driver said he was transporting the vacuum-sealed marijuana for a friend and that he had earned the $3,700 from working as a taxi driver, not selling pot.
When the driver told the officer the money was a gift for his wife, Tatum allegedly replied, “There’s no such thing as easy money.” When the driver asked for proof that he had been stopped, Tatum allegedly said “you can have your freedom today,” according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Friday.
The complaint details five other stops in which Tatum allegedly took marijuana from drivers without documenting it, including two in which he falsely posed as an ATF agent in December 2017.
On Dec. 5, 2017, Tatum and Huffaker stopped a driver on Highway 101 in Mendocino County near the Sonoma County border. The pair drove an unmarked black SUV and wore “tactical style clothing” with patches but no badges.
They seized three pounds of state-sanctioned marijuana being transported to a lab for testing. The marijuana was worth about $3,000. They did not arrest or cite the driver but told him he “might be getting a letter from Washington,” according to the complaint.
The alleged victim, Ezekial Flatten, sued the city of Rohnert Park over that incident in 2018. He settled his lawsuit for $415,000 in 2019. The city resolved another two lawsuits over the undocumented police stops and seizures for $287,000 and $1.17 million in February last year. Settlements over the alleged extortion scheme have cost the city nearly $1.9 million in total.
The complaint also accuses Tatum of preparing a false police report on the Dec. 5, 2017, stop to conceal his criminal activity after the press began reporting about it in February 2018.
It also charges Tatum with tax evasion. Prosecutors say the former officer deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars into his and his wife’s bank accounts during the time he was allegedly seizing drugs for personal gain in 2016. He also bought a $46,000 boat in cash. The cash deposits and boat added up to $443,000 not reported in his tax filings, according to the complaint.
Tatum and Huffaker could serve up to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion if convicted. Tatum faces another maximum 20 years in prison for falsification of records and a maximum five-year sentence for tax evasion.
Tatum worked for the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety from 2003 to 2018. Huffaker worked there from 2012 to 2019.
Tatum’s attorney, Stuart Douglas Hanlon, Rohnert Park City Manager Darrin Jenkin and Rohnert Park Deputy Police Chief Aaron Johnson did not immediately return emails and phone calls requesting comment Friday.