Sonoma County police seized more than $400,000 and 328 pounds of marijuana during a fall campaign to stop drug traffickers on Highway 101 during the outdoor marijuana harvest.
Led by Santa Rosa and Petaluma police, departments dedicated officers sometimes several days a week from August to November to patrol major thoroughfares.
On the lookout for marijuana going south and cash going north, the focus is the highway, an artery between the Emerald Triangle to the north — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — and the Bay Area to the south.
The sight of patrol cars from Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati and Rohnert Park along the highway and sometimes as far north as Cloverdale has some critics asking if cities can afford it.
But law enforcement officials said proactive patrols to stop drug traffickers, even outside city limits, is part of the job.
"What are our cops doing up in Cloverdale? Criminals don't recognize the boundaries of jurisdictions," Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.
This fall was the third season county agencies have collaborated on "drug interdiction," although patrolling to intercept illegal drugs is far from new.
After years of working separately, members of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association discussed coordinating teams and areas of focus.
"We have a transient society that is using the car as a means of committing crimes," Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said. "A lot of people will stop here to get gas, food, they're spending the night."
In past years, Rohnert Park, the county sheriff's office and federal agents were involved. This year, those agencies did not take a major role because of scheduling and resource concerns. Sebastopol's canine officer went out on just one day, Chief Jeff Weaver said.
But critics, particularly defense attorneys, ask if the time is well spent.
"They're not targeting the organized crime and the cartels, they're going after small-time marijuana patients," said Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, an outspoken defender of marijuana cases. "To me, the right people to target would be violent criminals, not those who are involved in commerce with plants."
This year, Santa Rosa officers made 541 traffic stops and made 281 searches of vehicles and people from August to November, Schwedhelm said. They arrested 30 people, 25 of those on suspected felony charges.
Officers seized $173,000 and 260 pounds of marijuana, as well as prescription pills, Ecstasy, 2 ounces of methamphetamine and a half-pound of cocaine.
Two to four Santa Rosa officers, usually with a police dog, spent several shifts a week patrolling for drug traffickers.
According to daily incident logs for October, Santa Rosa officers spent 10 days during the month on these directed patrols. They made 123 traffic stops on the highway between Windsor and the Mendocino County line.
A man pulled over near the Lytton Springs Road offramp Oct. 6 eventually pled no contest to possession of marijuana for sale, according to court records. Armando Chavez, 25, was sentenced to 120 days in jail and is on an immigration hold, records show. Schwedhelm said he had more than 36 pounds of pot in the car.