The false arrest of an elected official in San Francisco for using a $100 bill that police wrongly thought was counterfeit has evolved into a potentially precedent-setting legal struggle over police accountability.
The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is seeking to appeal the case all the way to the conservative-dominated US Supreme Court, an expensive fight that could overturn what would seem a welcome ruling in liberal San Francisco. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last August affirmed in the case that citizens have the right to sue police officers after being unreasonably arrested for a crime they didn’t commit.
After a federal district judge refused to grant qualified immunity to the officers and throw out the lawsuit, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office insisted on repeated appeals argued by deputy city attorney Scott Wiener, rather than settling for a few thousand dollars and accepting that the cops simply screwed up.
"There are some people who would say ‘Why don’t you just pay a little money to settle it?’<0x2009>" Wiener told the Guardian. "But we have to take a broader institutional perspective, because if you start settling cases that don’t have merit, you’re going to wind up with a lot more cases like that than you would have otherwise."
At the center of the story is attorney Rodel Rodis, a Filipino activist and elected trustee of City College of San Francisco, who was arrested in the spring of 2003 and dragged to a police station for supposedly trying to buy a handful of items from a Walgreens with a counterfeit $100 bill. The bill turned out to be real.
But by the time the officers came to that conclusion, Rodis had suffered what he regarded as the terrible embarrassment of being shoved into a squad car with his hands behind his back in front of neighbors and constituents. It also occurred just around the corner from his longtime law practice and the main campus of City College, where he’s been an elected trustee since 1991.
Rodis promptly filed a $250,000 claim against the city, former Police Chief Alex Fagan Sr., and two officers at the scene alleging false arrest, excessive force, and the negligent infliction of emotional stress, among other things. He later offered to settle the suit for $15,000, but the City Attorney’s Office refused to accept the deal.
Five years and innumerable legal bills later, the case just keeps getting worse for the city even before it lands in front of a jury to determine if indeed the police should compensate Rodis.
"Part of my mind was saying … ‘I’m not going to argue. I’m not going to resist,’<0x2009>" Rodis said of the arrest. "I put my hands behind my back but I’m thinking ‘This has got to be a mistake. Somebody here has to have some sense.’<0x2009>"
Rodis was suffering from minor allergy symptoms on Feb. 17, 2003, when he headed to a Walgreens on Ocean Avenue he’d been going to for 20 years. It was located near his Ingleside home and a law office he’s had in the neighborhood since 1992.
He picked up some cough syrup, Claritin, toothpaste, and a few other things. The total came to $42 and change, so he tried to pay with a $100 bill.
"I just happened to have it in my wallet," Rodis said.
The drugstore clerk used a counterfeit detection pen to be sure the bill was legit. It was, according to the marking, but the bill was printed in the 1980s before watermarks and magnetic strips were used to help stop counterfeiting.
The young clerk was unfamiliar with the bill’s design and called a manager to be sure. He, too, used a counterfeit pen to confirm that it was real. But the manager told Rodis he was still going to call the police, fearing it was fake. That’s when things turned surreal. Two officers showed up and almost immediately placed Rodis in handcuffs before trying to ascertain if he’d actually attempted to defraud Walgreens.
"They made no effort to determine what the situation was … they just assumed," Rodis said. "When she said ‘Put your hands behind your back,’ I thought I was in some Twilight Zone moment."
A third ranking officer on the scene, Sgt. Jeff Barry, had known Rodis for years as a local lawyer and City College trustee. Their sons were classmates. But Barry allegedly failed to step in and question whether Rodis was likely to be a fraud artist.
Another officer, Michelle Liddicoet, told Rodis she knew who he was and that he "should be ashamed of himself," according to the suit.
Feeling humiliated as other Filipinos he knew looked on, Rodis was put into the back of a patrol car and taken to Taraval Station, where he was handcuffed to a bench. There he waited another 30 minutes or so until the police officers were able to reach the Secret Service, which investigates currency for the US Treasury Department. A federal agent confirmed that the bill was likely genuine. The whole ordeal lasted about a couple of hours and Rodis was driven back to the drug store.
"This wasn’t a situation where Mr. Rodis was held in jail overnight or for a week or had to post some large amount in bail," Wiener said.
Fagan sent out a department memo shortly afterward stating that suspects have to know the currency they’re using is counterfeit before being arrested, and in any event, if they insist it’s real, the officer can book the bill as evidence for later examination and give them a receipt without arresting anyone.
But by then the damage was done and the hasty reaction of police would lie at the heart of the case that Rodis subsequently filed.
Rodis is an unlikely champion of police accountability. Known for his cantankerous personality, he all but accused the secretary of the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center last month in his regular column for the Philippine News of supporting a band of communist guerillas in the Philippines known as the New People’s Army, a charge the man angrily denied.
He bitterly responded with a string of e-mails last year when the Guardian reported he was several months late in sending legally required campaign disclosure forms from his 2004 reelection to the Ethics Commission (see "At the crossroads," 07/17/07).
But the city’s police academy also has invited Rodis to lecture recruits about San Francisco’s Filipino community as part of the department’s sensitivity training. A week after the incident involving Rodis, an elderly Filipino man who sold the San Francisco Chronicle downtown was savagely beaten and robbed of $400. He never found a police officer while walking to his Tenderloin home, where he died. The two incidents, one following on the heels of the other, enraged the city’s Filipino population of 36,000, and Rodis believes it proves the police department continues to have trouble with discrimination.
"The fact that it happened to me meant that I was in a position to do something about it," Rodis said of his dust-up. "For many [Filipino immigrants] … they wouldn’t have had the resources or the knowledge of the procedures to fight back. Even up to now, five years later, I still bump into people who appreciate the fact that I filed the action."
The case was assigned to Wiener, who is coincidentally the elected chair of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and a longtime party activist in a city that’s famously wary of any perceived threat to civil liberties.
In his capacity as a lawyer for the city, though, Wiener tried to have Rodis’ suit tossed using a common courtroom maneuver known as summary judgment. Civil defendants request them from a court by arguing that a claim is so lacking in merit that they shouldn’t have to endure a costly, time-consuming jury trial.
He also made the standard claim that city employees in this case police officers are shielded by what’s known as qualified immunity, a legal argument designed to allow them room to make honest mistakes without facing an endless barrage of expensive litigation.
In March 2005, federal district judge Maxine Chesney granted the request in part, throwing out Rodis’ claim of liability against the city and county. But she allowed the part of the suit involving the two officers to move forward, arguing the arrest was illegal because they didn’t have probable cause that Rodis intended to defraud the store.
So Herrera’s office turned to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in a move that surprised Wiener, the panel ruled 2-1 that public employees are entitled to qualified immunity, but not when they fail to act on their considerable law enforcement powers in a reasonable way and take into account all factors present at the scene.
To put it bluntly, cops sometimes make an error in judgment but they still have to use their brains for establishing probable cause. The panel also argued that even if the bill was counterfeit, Rodis did nothing wrong if he wasn’t aware of it.
"Even without knowledge of Rodis’ identity and local ties," the majority wrote, "based on the totality of the other relevant facts, no reasonable or prudent officer could have concluded that Rodis intentionally and knowingly used a counterfeit bill."
Now Herrera had on his hands published legal precedent that his staff believed imposed a new requirement on police officers to not only conclude that perpetrators passed counterfeit currency but also that they intended to defraud their victims. The decision, city officials claim in their pleading to the Supreme Court, could hamstring local and federal law enforcement investigating counterfeit currency and some other types of fraud.
"They said it was clearly established that probable cause is a fluid concept," Wiener said of the ruling. "Well, that’s a meaningless statement. Of course probable cause is a fluid concept. But the point of qualified immunity is that officers are entitled to rely on the current state of law about what the requirements are and shouldn’t have to predict what a judge is going to do down the road."
Lawrence Fasano, a lawyer for Rodis, counters that Fagan’s memo to the department reinforced the court’s opinion. Considering that the police and people in the neighborhood had known Rodis for years, the officers on the scene should have concluded that it was out-of-character for him to pass a counterfeit bill.
"All the evidence that was looked at by the police officers at the time indicated that he did not intend to pass counterfeit currency, including the fact that he had other $100 bills in his pocket that were genuine," Fasano said.
Fasano argued, too, that case law in California made clear the issue of intent cannot just be set aside by police.
Other cities and counties in California so fear the case’s impact that two interest groups representing them, the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties, filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, arguing that digital counterfeiting was a "threat to the nation’s fiscal health" that could grow in the future, and if allowed to stand, "the panel majority’s decision would eviscerate the doctrine of qualified immunity to the detriment of the public."
Wiener filed the Supreme Court petition in May after a larger panel of Ninth Circuit judges rejected a request for rehearing earlier this year. While the Supreme Court accepts only a fraction of the thousands of cases it receives annually, Wiener believes there’s a chance it will be accepted because of another such case it’s examining from the Tenth Circuit. The city won’t know for sure until the fall.
He adds that it’s extraordinarily dangerous for police to be forced to consider a citizen’s status as an elected official before concluding that probable cause exists for an arrest. The City Attorney’s Office won’t disclose how much has been spent on the case until it’s resolved, but Rodis estimates he’s spent more than $50,000.
The US dollar may be losing value internationally, but a $100 bill from the 1980s could cost San Francisco big bucks.