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By PORAC | December 1, 2010 | Posted in PORAC LDF News

Suspension Of Top-Notch Detective Overturned

Posted by Harry S. Stern

In an unusual challenge of a two-day suspension, Hearing Officer Joe Henderson dismissed Detective Brendon “Jacy” Tatum’s alleged violation of failing to register an assault rifle, after finding  insufficient evidence of the violation and proof of disparate treatment.

The Incident

Brendon “Jacy” Tatum is a veteran member of the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety with an outstanding record, including work in narcotics and citations for heroism. Rohnert Park is one of the few remaining jurisdictions in the state where public safety officers serve as both firefighters and police officers.

On June 3, 2007, Detective Jacy Tatum met Jessica, his former girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, in Auburn, California, during a child custody exchange. During the encounter, Tatum’s former girlfriend offered him a Colt Bushmaster assault rifle—the very rifle Tatum helped her pick out approximately one year prior—as a peace offering. Tatum accepted the weapon, but became suspicious of his former girlfriend’s intentions.

On June 11, 2008, eight days after assuming possession of the rifle, Tatum informed his superior at the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, former-Chief Bollard, about the weapon and the situation with the mother of his child. Chief Bollard agreed to keep the weapon in the department’s armory for safekeeping. Soon after, the Department initiated a criminal investigation of Tatum.

Although the District Attorney’s Office did not press charges against Tatum, the City continued with an internal investigation, alleging Tatum was disobedient and did not fulfill his individual responsibilities as an officer. The City recommended disciplinary action consisting of a two-day suspension.

The Hearing

The appeal hearing took place before well-established Arbitrator Joe Henderson. In my opening statement, I reminded the involved parties that the burden of proof fell to the City to present evidence proving the allegations against Tatum and to prove the appropriateness of the discipline rendered.

Further, I presented Penal Code Section 12280 language, pointing out the holes in the City’s allegations: “This section shall not prohibit the delivery, transfer, sale or the possession of an assault weapon by a sworn peace officer if the peace officer is authorized by his or her employer to possess or receive the assault weapon.” More importantly, “[i]f this possession occurs after January 1, 2002,” as this incident did, “the officer has 90 days to register the weapon.” Tatum was trained to carry assault weapons and was within the 90-day grace period.

Finally, I discussed the City’s own hypocritical behavior regarding assault rifle registration. The City itself had 15 to 18 assault weapons in their armory which had not been registered for one to two years after their purchase. Additionally, at least four other officers bought assault weapons on their own and also failed to register their weapons. The City imposed no disciplinary action against these officers.

Essentially, the oversight by the City and the officers resulted from an unclear understanding of the Penal Code Section. Range Master Lieutenant John Marty testified to this fact. A senior agent for the Firearms Bureau of the DOJ assured the City’s panicked range master that this sort of misunderstanding of the registration law happens on occasion with agencies, especially when the weapons are drop shipped, as they were in this case. The agent instructed Marty to register the weapons at his “earliest convenience,” but did not initiate any investigation.

Similarly, Officer Eric Matzen testified that he purchased a Colt AR 15, a rifle identical to Tatum’s, and did not realize the registration process was incomplete. Matzen, in fact, believed at least three other officers in the agency were in a similar situation, having purchased but not registered assault rifles.

Matzen realized he was out of compliance one-and-a-half to two years after the 90-day grace period and spoke to a sergeant. The sergeant instructed Matzen to surrender the weapon to the Department in order to comply with the law. The officer did as instructed and faced no disciplinary action or investigation.

After hearing the testimony, viewing the evidence and listening to the closing statements, Hearing Officer Henderson dismissed the alleged violation of Penal Code Section 12280, also refuting the alleged violations of Department Rules and Regulations.

The Hearing Officer noted that Tatum’s possession of the weapon was less than the 90 days he had to complete registration; thus, Tatum did not violate any time restrictions stated in the law. Finally, Henderson found the City’s own leniency toward other officers with prior assault weapon registration problems was proof of disparate treatment.

Tatum was, of course, pleased to prevent this incident from marring his unblemished record. Although the disciplinary action seemed relatively minor, Tatum’s only concern was being treated fairly—the same as other officers in his Department.

About The Author

Rains Lucia Stern PC, is a premier full-service litigation law firm with an emphasis on the representation of peace officers in disciplinary, criminal, civil and labor matters. Harry S. Stern is the firm’s managing partner.