A Texas man is accusing several police officers in Northern California of stealing three pounds of legal marijuana from him during a traffic stop, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this month. And he's not the only one who says he was essentially robbed by a group of rogue police officers.
Zeke Flatten alleges that three police officers from the town of Rohnert Park and Hopland Band of Pomo Indians pulled him over last December while he was driving through Mendocino County. The officers were not wearing name tags or badges, and they identified themselves as federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, rather than local police officers, the lawsuit says.
Flatten told the officers about the marijuana and offered to show them his paperwork for it, but they seized it and left without issuing him a ticket or running his name to check for outstanding warrants.
Flatten is not the only alleged victim. The lawsuit, citing recent local news investigations, says police from the town and tribe have a pattern of using a lucrative civil asset forfeiture program to shake down motorists for marijuana and cash during traffic stops.
Rogue Rohnert Park police "conspired to expand the legitimate interdiction mission to one of personal financial gain, and over the years seized thousands of pounds of cannabis and hundreds of thousands of dollars of currency without issuing receipts for the seizures, without making arrests for any crimes, and without any official report of the forfeitures being made," the lawsuit says.
And when arrests were made, "cash and cannabis seized was significantly underreported in furtherance of the conspiracy allowing the officers to skim off the top of even otherwise legal interdictions," the suit continues.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize cash, cars, and even houses suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Law enforcement groups argue that civil forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime, but civil liberties groups say there are far too few due process protections for property owners and far too many perverse profit incentives for police.
"It's the government agencies typically that have been enriched as a result of those seizures," Flatten's attorney Izaak Schwaiger says. "What's different in Mr. Flatten's case is that it's individuals who are getting enriched—individual officers who under the color of law are abusing their authority to conduct traffic stops without the requisite legal cause and then robbing people of their cash, or in this case their cannabis."
An independent blogger first began scrutinizing Flatten's case in February after he contacted local police and media to complain. Although local and state police often partner with federal authorities for asset forfeiture cases, the ATF said it wasn't involved.
Rohnert Park Sgt. Jacy Tatum issued a press release and an incident report to try and justify the stop, but the report appeared to confuse Flatten's case with another large marijuana seizure, getting several key details, such as the car make and model, wrong. "As a result his press release defended the wrong illegal seizure, and instead of diffusing the scrutiny plaintiff's allegations had brought, it brought the allegations more clearly into focus," the lawsuit says.
KQED, working with several other newspapers, then published an investigation this June that uncovered similar complaints by nine other motorists who say they were essentially robbed by Rohnert Park police. For example, Huedell Freeman says Tatum and Rohnert Park police officer Joseph Huffaker, also named in Flatten's lawsuit, seized 47 pounds of marijuana from him, despite Freeman's having a permit to grow.
Tatum and another Rohnert Park officer were sued for seizing $120,000 from a man in 2016 who said he was on his way to a high-stakes poker game in Las Vegas.
The stories also detailed complaints by area defense attorneys who said Tatum had earned a spot on the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office "Brady list," an ignominious list of officers whose history of false testimony must be disclosed if they are called as witnesses.
A month after KQED published its story, Tatum left the police department, as did the police chief of Rohnert Park. The town has hired an independent investigator to audit its asset forfeiture program, and the department ceased most of its marijuana interdiction efforts in 2017.
Northern California has for decades been the marijuana-growing capital of the U.S., and traditionally such seizures have been a lucrative and reliable revenue source for local police departments, and a more or less accepted cost of doing business for black market growers.
Tatum, Whitaker, and several other officers were part of a drug task force that seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana and a small mountain of cash. "Between 2016 and 2017, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety kept $1.2 million in seized funds for its own," Flatten's lawsuit says.
To hone their skills, the department paid to send Tatum and the other task force members to attend training sessions hosted by Black Snow, a private company that teaches police how to target and perform roadside asset seizures. It also operates Black Asphalt, a private surveillance network police can use to identify potential motorists to target.
In a 2014 investigation into how police use highway traffic stops to seize hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists without charging them with crimes, The Washington Post reported on Desert Snow:
"All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine," Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.
Hain's book calls for "turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods."
But now marijuana is legal in California, and Schwaiger says growers who used to be cowed by the threat of felony charges are now finally able to speak up about police misconduct.
"What we've seen is people are proud of the fact that their industry has come out of the shadows and they feel like they should be able to operate without fear of persecution from the government," Schwaiger says. "Years ago, when you could get a felony for growing marijuana in California, everyone just considered getting ripped off by the cops the price of doing business. Now people feel entitled to engage in legitimate commerce, and they're willing to complain if something goes bad."