Monday, September 3, 2007

Behind My Walgreens Arrest

There has hardly been a week in the past 4 1/2 years when I have not been asked about the time I was arrested by San Francisco police officers for passing what they thought was a counterfeit $100 bill at a Walgreens pharmacy near my home.

News of my arrest was widely reported in the local TV news and appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Metro section, with a photo of me holding the $100 bill. That 2003 Chronicle photo was used again last week on August 29 to accompany the San Francisco Chronicle news report, "Man Arrested in '03 Bogus Cash Case Can Sue Police."

The article referred to the “for publication” decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 28, 2007, rejecting the San Francisco police officers’ defense of qualified immunity because, according to the 2-1 decision, they had no “probable cause” to arrest me.

Among the factors the Court cited as having “significantly decreased” the probability that I would knowingly use a fake bill was the fact that Police Sergeant Jeff Barry, the first officer to arrive at the scene, had known me for several years: “He knew Rodis was a member of the Community College Board, and he had interacted with Rodis personally, encountering him at activities associated with the elementary school that both Barry’s and Rodis’s children attended.”

Because Sgt. Barry knew me, the Court reasoned, I should not have been arrested. In truth, it was precisely because he knew me that I was arrested.

The story behind the story began in 1995 when my oldest son Carlo was selected to be a member of the St. Stephen’s Elementary School basketball team. He practiced basketball everyday to improve his ball-handling and shooting skills as he eagerly awaited the intramural tournament. But Carlo never got a chance to play because his coach played only the best 5 or 6 players on the team and Carlo wasn’t one of them.

After several games watching Carlo suffer in frustration on the bench, I went to see the principal, Sister Paulina, to complain. “This isn’t the NBA and the coach isn’t Don Nelson,” I said. The principal was sympathetic to my concerns and directed me to speak to the volunteer in charge of the boys’ athletic program, Police Sergeant Jeff Barry. I knew Sgt. Barry because his wife was a teacher at the school and their son, Sean, was my son’s classmate.

Sgt. Barry listened quietly about my concerns; I told him about how my son’s self-confidence and self-esteem had eroded because of his coach’s actions. Instead of responding to my concerns, however, he questioned me about a policy of the San Francisco Community College Board where he knew I was a
member. His brother-in -law is a member of the SF Community College police force, he said. “Why won’t you guys allow your police force to carry guns on campus?” he demanded to know.

I told him that the issue was decided before I came on the board and hadn’t been brought up since then. Sgt. Barry became quite agitated as he accused me endangering his brother-in-law’s life with our no-guns policy. He made it crystal clear to me that he would never vote for me until the policy was changed. I told him that I was sorry he felt that way.

When the school year ended, my wife and I pulled our boys out of that Catholic school and enrolled them in a public elementary school near our home.

On February 12, 2003, I went to the Walgreens pharmacy near my office to purchase items totaling about $42.62. When I handed the young cashier my $100 bill, she applied a counterfeit detector pen which showed that it was genuine.
Unconvinced, she called the manager, who examined the bill and applied the detector pen again. When it showed the same result, he left with my bill. I followed him to his office and waited for him. When he came out, he said it was counterfeit.

As we discussed his suspicion, I noticed that police officers had entered the store. A female police officer named Michelle Liddicoet approached me and inquired if I was the one who had used the counterfeit bill. I asked her how she was sure it was counterfeit. She said it was obvious from how it looked. She then asked me for my driver's license and I told her I was an attorney, with my law office a block away, and that I was an elected official of the city, facts to impress upon her that I would not be the kind to knowingly use a counterfeit bill.

"I know who you are. You should be ashamed of yourself," she said. The next words to come from her mouth were: "Put your hands behind your back." After Officer Liddicoet handcuffed me and placed me in the back of the police car, she sat in the front seat, directly in front of me. Before her partner could start the car, however, another officer went over to Officer Liddicoet and said, “Under the circumstances, I would appreciate it if you didn’t include my name in the police report.” Officer Liddicoet said "Yes, Sarge".

I did not recognize him so I wondered who he was and what circumstances he was talking about. I was then transported to the Taraval police station for further investigation. The handcuffs behind my back were removed but I was placed in a holding area with my left wrist handcuffed to a rail. I asked to call my wife but this request was disallowed. I could do it later after I was booked downtown, an officer told me.

After a US Secret Service officer had determined that my bill was genuine, I was released, I obtained a copy of the police report. Because it was not written by Liddicoet, it included the name of the "Sarge" who spoke with her: Sgt. Jeff Barry.

My arrest was the most humiliating and degrading experience of my life. Because an injustice was committed against me, I hired my friend, Larry Fasano, to file suit against Walgreens, the City, the SFPD and police officers Barry and Liddicoet.
Walgreens subsequently fired the white manager who called the police and replaced him with a Filipino, the first time in a San Francisco Walgreens store.

Although my suit against the City and the SFPD was dismissed, the SFPD did formally adopt a policy that officers will no longer arrest anyone for merely possessing or using a counterfeit bill unless there was some evidence that the suspect had knowledge that the bill was fake.

One month before my suit against Barry and Liddicoet could proceed to trial in April of 2004, however, they appealed the court’s denial of their motion to dismiss based on their “qualified immunity” defense. In its ruling last week, the Ninth Circuit declared: “Given all of the circumstances surrounding Rodis’s arrest, no prudent person could have concluded reasonably that there was a fair probability Rodis had committed a crime. Consequently, Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.”

Police officers do not have the power to strip anyone of their individual constitutional rights without probable cause and for personal reasons.

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