Law vs. Justice - Page 2

Why is the SF City Attorney's Office pursuing precedents that protect bad police behavior?

Last month the Ninth Circuit ruled in the city's favor, thus expanding protections for police officers.

Rodis can now name cases from around the country, all with egregious police misconduct, that cite his case as support. "Even with that kind of abuse, people can no longer sue because of my case," Rodis said.

Herrera disputes the precedent-setting nature of the case, saying the facts of each case are different. "We're defending them in accordance with the state of the law as it stands today," Herrera said, arguing that officers in the Rodis case acted reasonably, even if they got it wrong. "We look at each case on its facts and its merits."

Herrera said he agrees with Keane that it's often a difficult balancing act to promote policies that protect San Francisco citizens from abuse while defending city officials accused of that abuse. But ultimately, he said, "I have the ethical obligation to defend the interests of the City and County of San Francisco."

While it may be easy to criticize those who bring lawsuits seeking public funds, Rodis says it is these very cases that set the limits on police behavior and accountability. As he observed, "The difference between police in a democracy and a dictatorship is not the potential for abuse, but the liability for abuse."


In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were months of antiwar protests resulting in thousands of arrests in San Francisco. Activist Mary Bull was arrested in November 2002. Bull said she was forcibly and illegally strip-searched and left naked in a cold cell for 14 hours.

San Francisco's policy at the time — which called for strip-searching almost all inmates — was already a shaky legal ground. Years earlier Bull had won a sizable settlement against Sacramento County because she and other activists were strip-searched after being arrested for protesting a logging plan, a legal outcome that led most California counties to change their strip-search policies.

So Bull filed a lawsuit against San Francisco in 2003. The San Francisco Chronicle ran front page story in September 2003 highlighting Bull's ordeal and another case of a woman arrested on minor charges being strip-searched, prompting all the major mayoral candidates at the time, including Gavin Newsom, to call for reform. Sheriff Michael Hennessey later modified jail policies on strip searches, conforming it to existing case law.

But the City Attorney's Office has continued to fight Bull's case, appealing two rulings in favor of Bull, pushing the case to the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (from which a ruling is expected soon) and threatening to appeal an unfavorable ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's pretty outrageous and humiliating to strip-search someone brought to jail on minor charges," Bull's attorney Mark Merin told the Guardian. "If they win, they establish a bad precedent."

Herrera said the case is about inmate safety and that his office must follow case law and pursue reasonable settlements (neither side would say how much money Bull is seeking). "We do it well and we do it with a sense of justice at its core," Herrera said.

Yet Merin said the city's actions fly in the face of established law: "In the Bull case, he's trying to get 25 years of precedent reversed."

Merlin noted that "the problem is not with the city, it's with the U.S. Supreme Court." In other words, by pushing cases to a right-leaning court, the city could be driving legal precedents that directly contradict its own stated policies.

"It would be nice if this city was in a different league, but they look at it like any defense firm: take it to the mat, yield no quarter" he added.