Santa Ana Will Appeal Decision to Reinstate Officer Fired After Pot Shop Raid

A still frame of security footage of the 2015 raid on Sky High Holistic.

This article has been updated.

A split Santa Ana City Council voted Tuesday to ask a court to block the reinstatement of a police officer who was fired after allegedly committing crimes during a raid of a local pot shop.

Prosecutors say that during the May 2015 raid of Sky High Holistic, a pot dispensary on the southern edge of the city’s Floral Park neighborhood, officer Brandon Sontag stole food from the shop and destroyed security cameras by smashing them on a display case and cash register.

A video released by the pot shop’s attorney went viral and became a public relations nightmare for a department beset with officer misconduct issues.

Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged Sontag with vandalism and petty theft, and he was fired by Chief Carlos Rojas. But he appealed his firing to the city’s personnel board, which voted last year to undo the termination and reduce his punishment to a seven-week suspension and a transfer from the special enforcement team to the patrol division.

Two other officers from the raid, Nichole Quijas and Jorge Arroyo, were also charged criminally and fired. Their appeals to the personnel board are still pending.

After discussing the issue during a special closed-door meeting last week, and again during the closed-session portion of Tuesday’s regular meeting, council members voted 4-3 to appeal the decision about Sontag to Orange County Superior Court. The case is expected to be filed Wednesday.

Supporting the appeal were council members Vicente Sarmiento, David Benavides, Sal Tinajero, and Michele Martinez.

Pulido (center) huddles with Villegas (left) and Solorio just after the closed session vote on appealing Sontag's reinstatement. (Photo by Nick Gerda)

Pulido (center) huddles with Villegas (left) and Solorio soon after voting to not appeal Sontag’s reinstatement. (Photo by Nick Gerda)

Opposing it were Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas. The three dissenters were elected last year with strong support from the police officers’ union, which spent roughly $400,000 on the election and opposes the appeal.

Benavides leveled harsh criticism from the dais at his colleagues who voted against the appeal.

“We have an opportunity tonight to hold an officer accountable for actions he took under the color of authority…and you vote against that appeal to hold this person responsible,” Benavides said at the end of the meeting, which stretched until nearly midnight.

The pot shop raid was not the first time Sontag’s conduct cost the city.

In 2011, the city agreed to a $2.45 million settlement of a case brought by the family of a woman Sontag shot and killed after a high-speed car chase. And before that, the city paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after a video showed Sontag ramming his squad car into a fleeing suspect.

Pulido, Villegas and Solorio offered no explanation for their votes from the dais. And after the meeting, only Solorio answered a reporter’s questions.

In a phone interview, Solorio said his vote represents an acceptance of legal realities and his view that the punishment was too harsh.

“According to our city attorney’s assessment we have an extremely low probability of winning on appeal, especially since our citizen personnel board had decided otherwise,” Solorio said.

“And so if we lose the appeal, it’s gonna cost the city hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in additional legal expenses, and the officers in question will be reinstated with absolutely no conditions attached.”

Solorio also said City Attorney Sonia Carvalho and other staff “negotiated what I believe to be a very reasonable settlement” involving all three officers who had been fired.

Carvalho said she could not comment about the closed-door deliberations or what her advice was to the council.

But a source close to the situation said the settlement proposal was similar to the personnel board decision, and called for the city to reinstate Sontag with back pay and pay his attorney’s fees. Also, the city would have to agree to not terminate Sontag for his conduct in the raid if he is ultimately convicted of the charges, the source said.

In addition to the legal arguments, Solorio said he believed the officers’ firings were unfair, given that the raid’s supervisor “barely got a slap on the wrist, even though he was there on site and could have stopped the vandalism.”

Meanwhile, Councilman Sal Tinajero said the personnel board refused to let the city fully present its case, which he says led to a flawed result.

“I think it was a poor decision by the personnel board, because they didn’t allow for due process,” Tinajero said. “They didn’t allow for the city to call up witnesses or to have ample time to discuss why the police chief made the decision that he decided to make. The commission didn’t hear the whole story…and based on that little piece, they made a decision.”

He said the problem lies with the board’s chairman, Eugen C. Andres, who was appointed by Pulido.

“They have a chair who is an attorney and he’s very pro-POA,” Tinajero said, referring to the police union. “And he’s constantly doing what he can to overturn any decisions that are made by our staff.”

A phone message for Andres, a longtime criminal defense attorney and former president of the county bar association, wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday.

The personnel board has reinstated other fired employees in the past. But city officials say it’s rare for the City Council to appeal such a decision.

One prior case is that of Officer Michael Cabrera, who was fired in 1995 by then-Chief Paul Walters after being charged with felony assault, sexual battery, and false imprisonment for allegedly molesting a young woman in an abandoned police substation.

In December 1996 the personnel board reinstated him with back pay after his attorney argued that the only evidence against him was the woman’s testimony.

Walters fought the decision in court, filing a lawsuit to overturn Cabrera’s reinstatement, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the court challenge was unsuccessful, and Cabrera won his job back.

The criminal case against Cabrera ended after a hung jury.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Kracken

    If you’re from California and needing a medical cannabis card and a doctor’s recommendation, do yourself a favor and visit onlinemarijuanacards.com. The process is a breeze and the best thing is, they don’t even charge until you are fully recommended. If you’re not satisfied with the service, they would even refund your money. I am going to assure you you’re going to love their service, though. It was the best decision of my life!

  • RyanCantor

    “But a source close to the situation said the settlement proposal was similar to the personnel board decision, and called for the city to reinstate Sontag with back pay and pay his attorney’s fees. Also, the city would have to agree to not terminate Sontag for his conduct in the raid if he is ultimately convicted of the charges, the source said.”

    Wow. Commit a crime while on the job and get a paid vacation.

    Sure. That’s justice. Why not?

  • David Zenger

    Let’s see if I’ve got Mr. Solorio’s logic: it might cost a lot of money to keep dirty cops off the payroll so let’s tolerate abusive and sadistic little petty thieves on our police force.

    Got it.

    • LFOldTimer

      Yep. That’s how I interpreted it too. Solorio needs to drive about 3 hours south of OC and run for office down there.

  • Soy Yo

    I find it interesting that the comments from Solorio were brushed off so simply. Think about what he is saying, the city attorney advised the city council that the chance of winning the appeal is extremely low and would cost the city hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. And if they lose the appeal the Officers would be reinstated without any conditions attached. For a council who is supposedly so concerned with not wasting money on frivolous matters, it sounds to me as though they refuse to consider the possibility that the actions, although they looked really bad on the 4-5 minutes of released video, may not have been as egregious as made out to be by the media and the chief. Perhaps that is why a board of civilians selected by the former city council felt that the termination was unwarranted when reviewing ALL of the facts. This has the appearance of this city council being, again, pressured to act in a manner that misinformed community members demand. They are doing exactly what Rojas is doing and saying, look, we did our part…the superior court judge and the personnel board are the ones who are to blame for these officers being reinstated without any punishment and all of their backpay. Rather than give the officers their 280 hours of suspension and put them back on patrol

    • verifiedsane

      You must be speaking for the police union correct….Citizens can see with their own eyes what these criminal police did. Of course this was a retaliatory police action instigated by Mayor Miguel Pulido who was raking in the bucks on the rigged medical marijuana licensing scam. we know that the cover ups are done in complete secrecy & out of the public eye. You don’t appear to get it; Once you have violated the public trust, regaining it will take serious substantive actions and a whole lot of open accountability. The personal board, the police union, the mayor, and his cronies are neck deep in this dirty backroom gamesmanship mess.

      The fact is that there is no excuse for police destroying property, threatening the disabled, and stealing property. These aren’t the acts of good policing or public servants; they are the acts of criminal thugs who believe they have no accountability.

      Soy Yo, you are nothing more than a tool for the political corruption. Your opinion carries as much weight as the Mayor and counsel members that funded their campaigns with police union money.

      In fact not only should the mayor and these two counsel members be recalled; but the public should demand that the police union be dissolved in its entirety. The political corruption and the protection afforded criminal cops by the union must be stopped dead in its tracks! You should be ashamed of yourself coming here defending the indefensible.

      • LFOldTimer

        Excellent reply, verified. You saved me the time to set Soy straight. Thanks.

        What bothers me most about this is that if these bad cops are reinstated it will simply embolden other cops to copy their behavior knowing that the system will protect them.

        What are they going to do next? Steal drug money on narcotic raids? Steal dope? There was no indication that the other cops on the marijuana store raid snitched on the bad cops. The only way we found out about it was the video tape that the cops missed and was later exposed. All of them protect one another.

        This is very serious stuff. If we can’t trust cops who are sworn under oath to obey the laws the entire system and the American way of life is in peril.

        Isn’t there anybody in positions of authority other than Judge Goethals and Scott Sanders who care about the integrity of our justice system?

      • Ltpar

        Once identified as Officers who bend the rules, violate law and department policy these guys clearly violated the Public Trust they took an oath to uphold. That said, they shoud be fired. I would like to hear the Police Union defense of keeping these guys on the job. While the Union may be obligated to defend them legally, there is no excuse for supporting this type of misconduct. It gives all those dedicated Officers doing the tough job of keeping the city safe a black eye.

        • David Zenger

          They didn’t bend the rules. They broke the law. Otherwise 100% right.

      • Soy Yo

        You present yet another piece of the puzzle, the mayor collecting money during the crooked political process for the marijuana dispensary lottery. However, I find it interesting that you only name Pulido and not the rest of the city council who have also been accused in the past by the lawyer for the dispensary.

        But I apologize for offending your sensitive liberal left brain. Simply because I say that the civilian personnel board (chosen by your far left liberal city council of last year) were privy to far more facts than the few minutes of video that you all saw and judged based on you calling me a police union spokesman. My point was simple, I don’t know all of the facts and neither do any of you. The author even admitted he doesn’t know much of anything…aside from the edited video released with exactly what they wanted you to see.

        Your response is typical, I don’t know much but I know enough to make a 100% accurate decision on what occurred and what should happen to those involved. And you have the audacity to call me a tool for political corruption? Simply because I pose the question why would we not consider the point being made by Solorio?

        I’m curious to see what Tinajero and Chief Rojas have to say about the superior court process when the trial concludes and the city is required to pay several hundred thousands of dollars to the officers involved. I’m sure everyone will continue to point fingers at idiots like Solorio because he said, maybe we should consider what the city attorney advised us. Maybe we should listen to what the lawyer who has all of the facts is saying about challenging the independent civilian personnel board decision. The board selected by several liberal left police hating council members.

        I can see it now, “this is a failure of epic proportions” “how dare this judge, doesn’t he know all of the facts that I know?!”

        Then again, what do I know…my mind isn’t made up about things the second I see 3-4 minutes of video that was already edited by a crooked lawyer already operating an illegal business. Maybe in America due process should mean something, even when the accused are police officers. Then again, maybe not.

        • LFOldTimer

          This reminds me of conversations that I had with idiots who told be that they couldn’t in good conscience judge OJ because they didn’t actually see him stick a knife in his wife or Ron Goldman. ha.

          Here we actually have a video that shows obvious police misconduct that warrants termination and some people still don’t believe their own eyes!

          ha. I give up!

        • David Zenger

          “I don’t know all of the facts and neither do any of you.”

          Oh, brother, right out of the bad cop union apologist play book. That. and calling bad cop critics “leftists.”

          JFK was assassinated in three seconds. But there was so much more to it than the edited Zapruder film! In fact Kennedy may not even be dead. Who knows?

        • verifiedsane

          “I don’t know much but I know enough to make a 100% accurate decision on what occurred and what should happen to those involved” and there you go….you don’t know much about anything, do you…we don’t know everything 100% because it has been hidden from the public. Doesn’t that concern you? Yet, what we do know speaks volumes for itself. Police thugs abusing their power as public servants.

          Your straw-mans argument of excuses is arrogant, total foolishness, and completely ignorant. Of course, due process of the criminal acts would quite nice; but with the good old boys and girls political ruling class and criminally corrupt DA’s office in place, How does that happen exactly? These criminal thugs should have been indicted and charged, followed by an open public trial for all to see and witness, with a jury of their peers handing down a verdict….as for their violations of their public trust & duties as public servants; losings their jobs should be a given without any debate what so ever.

          We all know that this political hierarchy isn’t going to allow that to take place with their police department scared cow. The public demands equal justice for everyone, police and civilian a like. Not some hand selected political dog and pony show called a “independent civilian personnel board”. Shall we go down the list of these supposed independent board members? because there are some real whoopers on that list!

          As it stands today, there are no good cops left in Santa Ana (including the sheriffs office)…there are just bad cops, and the cops & unions that covers up for them. That’s some public trust and service.

          You sir, are no conservative, you’re just another shameful Rino protecting the criminals higher up the food chain.

      • buzzookaman

        “Citizens can see with their own eyes”……objective observation. What’s your background with mental illness ?

  • LFOldTimer

    I admit this vote surprised me. I expected a majority vote to accept the personnel board ruling and to reject the appeal. Hat tip to the 4 council members who did the right thing.

    But it didn’t surprise me that the 3 council members who benefited most from the $400,000 in campaign contributions by the police union voted to forego the appeal. This illustrates the need for campaign financing reform. When you mix big money with politics bad things happen. Dirty system.

    The police are assigned vast powers: To arrest people and throw them in jail; To forcibly enter a person’s home and execute search warrants; To pull a motorist to the side of the road and write a $500 citation; To furnish court testimony that could result in a conviction and the loss of a person’s freedoms for years and years.

    It’s vital for the public to have the utmost confidence in the integrity of police officers. People resent it when the ones who enforce the laws and claim to be held to a ‘higher standard’ think that they are above the rules that everyone else has to follow.

    If I worked for a company and got caught on video in a client’s office taking property without authorization or destroying property or insulting those in the client’s business – how long do you think I’d keep my job?

    Look, if you don’t like being held to a “higher standard” then resign your police job and go sell life insurance.

    It’s disgraceful for the police union that represents the rank and file to defend this behavior and fight to bring these cops back to the department. The video and audio are worth 10,000 words.

    Until good cops speak up and condemn the behavior that we saw on that video and agree those fired cops were in the wrong job – the public will look upon all police officers with a jaundiced eye. If you don’t police your own don’t expect the public to support or to respect you.

  • verifiedsane

    “Opposing it were Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas. The three dissenters were elected last year with strong support from the police officers’ union, which spent roughly $400,000 on the election and opposes the appeal.”

    That about says it all…corrupt non-leadership for hire. OC is lost in a never ending cycle of criminal corruption from top to bottom. These dirty political animals could give a flying duck about the citizens of OC.

  • David Resendez

    You have to love the 3 Amigos,especially shameless Solorio: the 3 delivered for the Police Officer’s Union. Jose will do the bidding of his contributors, including the developer that showed up last night. Poor Jose trying to travel back up the political food change by any means necessary.

  • OCservant_Leader

    There were over 25 Million reasons (seen on video) to appeal.

    There is an obvious difference between police committing crimes and not meeting performance expectations.

    Good job City of Santa Ana!

  • Ed Romero

    Only in Orange County. I remember when that Asst. Chief Probation Officer use to Smoke so much Marijuana while on duty that all 5 floors of the O C Probation Department were full of Marijuana fumes. She had her very own Gang of Drug Dealers, making Drug Deliveries right into her Office while on duty. No matter how much I complained NO ONE would do a thing about it, there were times the Cafeteria was full of Local Law Enforcement Officers and NO ONE stood up to investigate. I remember one day I was in the elevator with 2 Anaheim Police Officers that were summoned by that corrupt Asst. Chief Probation Officer because they REFUSED to us the Probation Department Drug Dog the night before. As we were riding down the elevator the Marijuana fumes were POURING out of he air vents, the elevator was full of Marijuana fumes as we EXITED on the 1st floor. Like I said only in Orange County.