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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.