Two former police officers in Northern California are facing federal charges amid allegations the pair extorted marijuana and cash from drivers during traffic stops under threat of arrest.
Brendon Jacy Tatum and Joseph Huffaker were among a team of Rohnert Park Police Department officers that patrolled US Route 101 as it passes through Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, as part of an operation to make illicit drug seizures. This operation started in 2014 and ceased in early 2017, the year after California voted to legalize recreational marijuana.
Following years of complaints by drivers who claimed they’d been robbed along this section of the highway by law enforcement officers, a federal investigation brought to light that Tatum and Huffaker were indeed seizing goods from drivers and threatening to arrest them if they did not consent. Federal prosecutors even found the former officers continued to extort money and marijuana from drivers following cannabis legalization in the state, and after Rohnert Park Police Department stopped its illicit drug seizure operation along US Route 101.
“The City of Rohnert Park does not tolerate corrupt and unethical practices within the ranks of its employees, particularly its sworn peace officers, and those officers involved in today’s charges are no longer employed by the City,” city officials said in a statement.
The media began reporting on the alleged robberies by law enforcement along that section of Route 101 as far back as 2018. What’s more, last year the city of Rohnert Park paid $1.5 million to settle federal civil rights lawsuits made by eight individuals who claimed they were victims of extortion at the hands of the city’s police officers, including Tatum and Huffaker.
Tatum and Huffaker handed in their resignations when details of the allegations emerged.
While the officers made no official report of the stops nor submitted the seized goods as evidence, audio and video recordings from their body cameras captured between 2015 and 2017 confirm the stops and seizures took place. In one particular incident from December 2017, Tatum and an unidentified officer pulled over a driver and falsely said they were agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They then went on to take 23 pounds of cannabis from the driver, which they failed to report, according to prosecutors.
Tatum and Huffaker appeared separately before US District Court Judge Sallie Kim in virtual hearings during which the felony indictments against them were unsealed. Both men are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under color of authority, which carries a maximum term of 20 years in federal prison. Tatum is also facing charges of falsifying police records and committing tax fraud, which could land him an additional 25 years in federal prison.
Federal prosecutors found Tatum deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash into his and his wife’s bank accounts during the period when the alleged acts of extortion took place. Including a fishing boat Tatum paid for in cash, the complaint filed by federal prosecutors claim he deposited or spent nearly half a million dollars that went unreported on his tax filings.
Tatum’s attorney, Stuart Hanlon, said the charges against his client are false and need to be weighed against his work as an officer.
“He believes he’s innocent and we’re going to defend against these charges,” Hanlon said. “He’s also done a lot of arresting of guilty people and has been involved in taking a lot of drugs off the illegal market. Whether he overstepped the bounds, which is what people say, you can’t forget the flip side: He was involved in police work that people wanted.”
Tatum and Huffaker have been released from custody as they await their trials.