A Santa Ana police officer who was fired after being criminally charged in connection with a widely-publicized pot shop raid is in the process of rejoining the force, after a judge ordered him reinstated with full back pay.
In a ruling last week, Superior Court Judge James L. Crandall ordered the city to immediately grant former Officer Brandon Sontag his job back, as well as all of the salary and benefits he would have received if he hadn’t been fired in May 2016.
Crandall ruled the city must follow a November decision by the city personnel board, which changes Sontag’s punishment for his actions in the May 2015 raid of Sky High Holistic. Under that decision, his new discipline is a seven-week suspension and a transfer from the special enforcement team to the patrol division.
The temporary restraining order was in response to a lawsuit filed by Sontag, who was charged with vandalism and petty theft in connection with the raid.
Prosecutors say Sontag stole food from the dispensary and destroyed security cameras by smashing them on a display case and cash register. A trial date in the criminal case hasn’t been set in the case. Sontag has pled not guilty.
A Santa Ana Police Department spokesman told Voice of OC the department would follow the court order, which was issued Feb. 7. Sontag hadn’t yet re-joined the force Friday but was in the process of doing so, said the spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.
In granting the order, Crandall said Sontag was likely to win his lawsuit, which alleges he and two other officers were singled out for termination because of an earlier lawsuit they filed.
The judge set a hearing for March 30 on whether to turn the order into an injunction, and ordered the city to argue why it believes an injunction isn’t appropriate.
A separate lawsuit filed by the city seeks to overturn the personnel board decision and uphold Sontag’s firing, alleging the personnel board improperly excluded evidence from their hearings and refused to let the city call Sontag as a witness. The Superior Court judge in that lawsuit, Geoffrey Glass, has not scheduled a hearing on whether to grant the city’s request, according to the court’s website.
The Sky High raid gained widespread attention after security video of it went viral and prompted the shop’s attorney to claim that officers ate marijuana-laced food items from the shop. The District Attorney’s Office later said it found no evidence of this, but declined to say whether the officers were drug tested.
Prosecutors, however, did end up charging three of the officers with crimes. Sontag, Nichole Quijas and Jorge Arroyo face petty theft charges for taking the food in the store. And Sontag received an extra charge of vandalism for allegedly destroying five of the shop’s cameras. They all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
And 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.
Sontag, Quijas, and Arroyo were fired by Chief Carlos Rojas for their alleged actions in the Sky High raid.
But they appealed their termination to the Santa Ana’s personnel board, which is empowered by the city charter to overturn firings of city employees and change their punishment.
After a series of closed-door hearings, the personnel board voted 5-2 in November to reinstate Sontag with a transfer and temporary suspension.
But a narrow majority of the City Council decided last month to appeal the personnel board decision, directing city attorneys on a 4-3 vote to file a lawsuit in Superior Court.
The city’s suit claims the personnel board “erroneously” reached its decision by excluding key evidence in violation of its legal requirements. The board refused to let the city call Sontag as a witness and withheld “admissible evidence” including testimony and documents, according to the suit.
“The Board’s ultimate decision is not supported by the weight of the evidence, is not supported by substantial evidence and is in error as a matter of law,” the suit states. “Furthermore, the decision of the Board is not supported by the findings or the evidence.”
It seeks a court order overturning the personnel board’s decision and upholding Rojas’ firing of the officer.
Meanwhile, Sontag and the city police officers’ union were ready to launch their own legal battle.
Less than an hour after the council’s decision to appeal was announced on Feb. 7, Sontag filed his own lawsuit to require the city to implement the personnel board decision.
In his suit, Sontag says the police department’s command staff, Commander Gominsky and Deputy Chief Doug McGeachy, recommended that his punishment be a suspension and transfer back to patrol. And before that, Rojas had always followed the discipline recommendations of his command staff, Sontag alleged in the suit.
But, he says, Rojas decided to fire him “in an effort to retaliate against Sontag for his exercising of his rights” when he filed an earlier lawsuit seeking to prevent the pot shop video from being used against him in the disciplinary proceedings.
Sontag also alleges key evidence against him, including video recordings, was withheld from him, and that Rojas was uneven in his discipline.
“Of all the officers involved the search warrant service of the marijuana dispensary who engaged in similar conduct as alleged against Officer Sontag, only the officers that exercised their rights under [the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act], and participated in the above referenced lawsuit faced and/or were terminated,” Sontag’s suit says.
“In fact, a number of officers that engaged in similar acts as Sontag were not disciplined at all, and two were promoted and/or moved into special assignments.”
Sontag asked for a court order requiring the city to reinstate him to his previous position, plus back wages and benefits with 7 percent interest. Sontag also asked the court to order the city to pay him up to $25,000 for each violation of his rights under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, commonly known as the police officers’ bill of rights.
Rojas and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho declined to discuss Sontag’s lawsuit, citing city policy against commenting on pending litigation.
The personnel board hasn’t yet issued a decision on the other two officers who were fired. Arroyo’s hearings are scheduled to finish May 2, and Quijas’ are slated to wrap up on June 1.
Eugene C. Andres, chairman of the personnel board, declined to comment on the city’s lawsuit suit when approached by a reporter at a board meeting last month.
The City Council’s lawsuit is peculiar in that the city is technically suing one of its own boards, whose attorney is appointed by the City Council.
The personnel board’s attorney is Nate J. Kowalski, a partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo who has worked for the board since 2014. He didn’t return emails seeking comment on the suit.
The city’s lawsuit was filed by a group of lawyers including Bruce Praet, who has a long history of representing police departments in officer misconduct cases.
The city’s lawsuit says city leaders themselves haven’t had access to the full record of the personnel board’s hearings, such as transcripts of the testimony and documents that were submitted as evidence.
The vast majority of these records are confidential under the police officers’ bill of rights, and the city would be filing them in court under seal.
That means it’s unlikely the public will find out much about what happened in the personnel board hearings, since it’s unusual for a court to order them to be publicly disclosed.
In his lawsuit, Sontag is represented by Corey W. Glave, a Hermosa Beach attorney who often represents police officers and police unions in lawsuits against cities.
The March 30 hearing in Sontag’s case is scheduled before Crandall at 1:30 p.m. in Department C-33 of the main Superior Court building in Santa Ana.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].