Rohnert Park couple testify police home search in 2014 left them in distress

October 26, 2018 in News by RBN Staff


Source: The Press Democrat | JULIE JOHNSON



SAN FRANCISCO — Edgar Perez was an absent son, a drug user who had admitted to family he was addicted to methamphetamine, his stepfather Raul Barajas testified Thursday in a federal civil rights trial against Rohnert Park police.

Perez disappeared sometimes for days or months, before turning up again to sleep on the couch at his family’s Santa Barbara Drive home in Rohnert Park. He didn’t have a bedroom there, but Perez listed his family’s house as his address after he was jailed in 2010 for felony drug possession and sentenced to probation.

So on Nov. 4, 2014, that’s where three Rohnert Park police officers came looking for Perez, then 35, to conduct a routine probation search and ensure he was abiding by the rules set by Sonoma County Superior Court. Perez was not home when the officers arrived, including an embattled ex-sergeant, Brendon Jacy Tatum, who slipped through a back door of the Santa Barbara Drive house with his gun drawn, then holstered the weapon before taking the Barajas family by surprise.

Thursday was the third day of the trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in the civil rights case against the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department brought by Elva and Raul Barajas. They claim in their lawsuit that while police may have had the authority to search Perez, the officers violated his law-abiding family members’ constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment against warrantless searches when they looked into every room and closet in the house,. They are suing Rohnert Park and the three public safety officers involved.

“Why has this incident caused you to want to have your doors shut and your drapes closed?” said attorney Alexis Amezcua, a lawyer for the family, questioning Elva Barajas.

“Because I feel I don’t have any security in my home,” Barajas said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

“You know now that when Officer Tatum entered your house, he did so with his gun drawn. How does that make you feel?,” Amezcua said.

“Very bad,” Barajas said.

Lawyers for Rohnert Park Public Safety Department said the three officers — Tatum, now-retired officer Dave Rodriguez and Officer Matthew Snodgrass — were polite and the search was legal under the terms of Perez’s probation, which allowed officers to come into his home without notice “any hour of the day or reasonable hour of the night.”

But the Barajases are seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress caused by the search, and in his opening statements Tuesday their lead attorney Arturo Gonzalez said they are not concerned with the money and filed the suit in order to push the department to change its practices.

The case spotlights the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department at a time when its leadership and oversight of its officers have come under public scrutiny.

Tatum quit in June, followed by the retirement of the department’s longtime director, Brian Masterson. The city has since hired a police auditor to conduct a broad investigation into policies and practices, prompted by complaints over its missions to intercept drugs and cash on Highway 101, often far outside city limits.

The Barajases and their daughter testified Thursday, revealing more about Perez’s struggles and his contacts with police. Perez, now 39, is undergoing drug rehabilitation and will not testify in the trial, which will resume Tuesday.

The city’s lawyers said Perez had a history of problems with the law. Tatum claimed in his testimony Perez had provided information to police about drug dealers in order to avoid arrest. One of the attorneys, Scott Lewis, said family statements and court records indicate police had been to the Santa Barbara Drive home on five occasions between 2003 and 2014.

Lewis questioned Elva Barajas about whether her distress was caused by the officers’ actions during the 2014 search or the overall circumstances.

“Would it be fair to say it wasn’t so much the officers’ conduct during the search that day — that it was you just didn’t like them being in your home?” Lewis said.

“Correct,” Elva Barajas said.

Gonzalez, their attorney, described Elva and Raul Barajas as modest people with little to no education and who don’t speak English, which meant they had very little understanding of what the officers were saying to them in 2014.

Barajas has worked as a local garbage hauler for 47 years. And his family has lived in the same Rohnert Park home for 27 years. His wife, Elva Barajas, works, too, cleaning the offices and homes of Catholic priests, and she never went to school and doesn’t know how to read. They have two other children, including another adult son who has a severe heart condition and a cognitive disability.

Raul Barajas, who became his stepfather when Perez was 3 or 4 years old, said Perez wouldn’t speak with him about his issues with drugs or police. Barajas said he didn’t have a way to contact his son because Perez rarely had a cellphone.

The case highlights legal questions about the legal parameters for officers looking for people on probation or parole — or even with arrest warrants — when the searches involve other people such as family members.

Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco, said the issues are being “hotly debated” in a variety of lower court cases nationwide.

“Where do you end and other people begin? It’s a good question and there are arguments on both sides,” Aviram said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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