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.