Law vs. Justice

Why is the SF City Attorney's Office pursuing precedents that protect bad police behavior?
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steve@sfbg.com

City Attorney Dennis Herrera relishes his reputation as a crusading reformer. For several years, his official Web site prominently displayed the phrase "Activism defines SF City Attorney's Office," linked to a laudatory 2004 Los Angeles Times article with that headline.

"Doing what we can do to ensure civil rights for everyone is not something we are going to back away from," was the quote from that piece Herrera chose to highlight on his homepage, referring to his work on marriage equality. The article also praises the City Attorney's Office practice of proactively filing cases to protect public health and the environment and to expand consumer rights.

But more recently the City Attorney's Office also has aggressively pushed cases that create troubling precedents for civil rights and prevent law enforcement officials from being held accountable for false arrests, abusive behavior, mistreatment of detainees, and even allegedly framing innocent people for murder.

Three particular cases, which have been the subject of past stories by the Guardian, reveal unacceptable official conduct — yet each was aggressively challenged using the virtually unlimited resources of the City Attorney's Office. In fact, Herrera's team pushed these cases to the point of potentially establishing troubling precedents that could apply throughout the country.

Attorney Peter Keane, who teaches ethics at Golden Gate University School of Law and used to evaluate police conduct cases as a member of the Police Commission, said city attorneys sometimes find themselves trapped between their dual obligations to promote the public good and vigorously defend their clients. "Therein lies the problem, and it's a problem that can't be easily reconciled," he told us.

"A lawyer's obligation is to give total loyalty to a client within ethical limits," Keane said, noting his respect for Herrera. But in police misconduct cases, Keane said, "it is desirable public policy to have police engage in ethical conduct and not do anything to abuse citizens."

RODEL RODIS VS. SF

Attorney Rodel Rodis is a prominent Filipino activist, newspaper columnist, and until this year was a longtime elected member of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees. So it never made much sense that he would knowingly try to pass a counterfeit $100 bill at his neighborhood Walgreens in 2003 (see "Real money, false arrest," 7/9/08).

Nonetheless, the store clerk was unfamiliar with an older bill Rodis used to pay for a purchase and called police, who immediately placed Rodis in handcuffs. When police couldn't conclusively determine whether the bill was real, they dragged Rodis out of the store, placed him in a patrol car out front, and took him in for questioning while they tested the bill.

There was no need to arrest him, as subsequent San Francisco Police Department orders clarified. They could simply have taken his name and the bill and allowed him to retrieve it later. After all, mere possession of a counterfeit bill doesn't indicate criminal intent.

The police finally determined that the bill was real and released Rodis from his handcuffs and police custody. Rodis was outraged by his treatment, and sued. He insisted that the case was about the civil rights principle and not the money — indeed, he says he offered to settle with the city for a mere $15,000.

"I told my lawyer that I didn't want a precedent that would hurt civil liberties," Rodis told the Guardian.

To his surprise, however, the City Attorney's Office aggressively appealed rulings in Rodis' favor all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the officers enjoyed immunity and ordered reconsideration by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.