SANTA ANA, CA – Santa Ana is appealing its personnel board’s decision to reinstate a police officer involved in a marijuana dispensary raid that gained national attention.
Brandon Matthew Sontag – one of three Santa Ana Police Department officers who raided Sky High Holistic in May 2015 and were caught on video eating snacks – was terminated by Chief Carlos Rojas. The personnel board, however, on a 5-2 vote last year ruled that was not the appropriate remedy.
In closed session Tuesday, council members voted 4-3 to appeal the board’s reinstatement decision, with opposition from Mayor Miguel Pulido, Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas. All three dissenters were endorsed in the November election by the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, which spent nearly $300,000 on its slate.
The split council vote on the appeal – filed in Orange County Superior Court by the 5 p.m. Wednesday filing deadline, according to city spokeswoman Alma Flores – reflects conflicting views on police discipline.
A surveillance video released by the dispensary’s lawyer showed Sontag, Nicole Lynn Quijas and Jorge Arroyo ordering customers and employees to the ground and two of the officers making demeaning remarks about Sky High volunteer Marla James, an amputee in a wheelchair.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office in March filed charges of petty theft against the trio, and Sontag was also accused of vandalism for allegedly breaking some of the dispensary’s surveillance cameras. Prosecutors said there was no evidence the snacks the officers consumed contained any drugs.
Councilman David Benavides on Tuesday denounced his colleagues who voted against appealing.
“We have an opportunity tonight to hold an officer accountable for actions that he took under the color of authority, after having our management release him from his position,” Benavides said, “and you voted against filing that appeal to hold this person responsible.”
Solorio defended his vote Wednesday, saying the city attorney’s assessment determined the city had “an extremely low probability of winning on appeal, especially since our citizen personnel board had said the discipline against the employee was excessive.”
“And so if we lose the appeal, it’s (going to) 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 said in a statement.
Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but confirmed that Sontag “is not currently employed by the city of Santa Ana.”
Sontag’s firing did not sit well with Santa Ana Police Officers Association President Gerry Serrano.
“The citizen Personnel Board in fact overturned Chief Rojas’s decision. The evidence proved the discipline and investigation at the direction of Chief Rojas was mishandled,” Serrano said in a statement Wednesday. “When our members make a mistake they expect to be held accountable as long as it’s reasonable, consistent and done in a legal manner. These are the same rights any citizen is entitled to when confronted in any legal process.”
Also on a 5-2 vote last year, the board said the appropriate remedy for Sontag was a 280-hour suspension without options and a transfer from the special enforcement team to the patrol division.
Sontag and Quijas’ last day on the force was May 6, and Arroyo’s was April 20.