Real money, false arrest - Page 3

Why is the City Attorney's Office aggressively trying to overturn a good police accountability ruling?
Rodel Rodis
Photo by Ben Hopfer

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.

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