By Felix Antero
SAN FRANCISCO - The five-year-old case of the $100 bill tendered by Filipino American lawyer Rodel Rodis which a Walgreens manager and San Francisco police officers mistakenly thought was counterfeit may yet wind up in the US Supreme Court.
This developed after the San Francisco City Attorney's Office on February 11 filed a writ with the US Supreme Court appealing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' denial on February 6 of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) petition to rehear en banc its earlier decision affirming the Northern District Court's denial of qualified immunity to two SFPD officers who mistakenly arrested Rodis on February 17, 2003.
"I am disappointed that the City Attorney has decided to take this case to the US Supreme Court hoping that the conservatives in that court will reverse the Ninth Circuit decision and give police officers the unbridled license to arrest anyone without probable cause," Rodis said.
The Ninth Circuit's denial of the rehearing request follows its August 28, 2007 decision ruling that the police officers, Sergeant Jeff Barry and Officer Michelle Liddicoet, are not entitled to qualified immunity because they did not have probable cause to arrest Rodel Rodis, a long-time member of the San Francisco City College Board of Trustees.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine which protects government officers if they did not violate a plaintiff's clearly established statutory or constitutional rights; probable cause refers to reasonable grounds to arrest given the totality of the circumstances.
The petition for a rehearing was filed after the 2-1 ruling of the appellate court held that just because the Walgreens manager was suspicious of the bill that Rodis used to complete his purchase at the store in February 2003 was not sufficient basis to arrest, handcuff and detain him at a police station for almost two hours.
While Rodis was detained, the US Secret Service determined that the bill used by Rodis was genuine. But even if it had been counterfeit, the court majority said, innocently passing a counterfeit bill is not a crime, and police had no evidence that Rodis thought the bill was a fake.
"No reasonable or prudent officer could have concluded that Rodis intentionally and knowingly used a counterfeit bill," Judge Dorothy Nelson said in the majority opinion.
"Without at least some evidence regarding the knowledge or intent elements of the crime," the Court further held, "probable cause is necessarily lacking. To hold otherwise would render any individual vulnerable to arrest who, unknowingly, through the normal stream of commerce, comes to possess or use a counterfeit bill."
Dissenting Judge Consuelo Callahan said officers are allowed to make reasonable mistakes of fact without violating constitutional rights.
The case has attracted not only the attention of the local Filipino-American community but also legal scholars and other interested parties throughout the United States.
In support of SFPD's petition for rehearing, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), a nonprofit corporation representing California's 58 counties, and the League of California Cities, which claims in its brief to be an "association of 478 California cities dedicated to protecting and restoring local control to provide for the public health, safety, and welfare of their residents," filed an amicus curiae brief. An amicus brief is a document filed in a legal proceeding by an interested
party who is not directly part of the case.
Rodis, a 3-term president of the San Francisco Community College Board of Trustees since 1991 and former president of the city's Public Utilities Commission, is seeking damages for the violation of his rights and the humiliation caused by his arrest.
Rodis' separate lawsuit against Walgreens was settled in 2004 for an undisclosed sum.
The Ninth Circuit ruling last week would have allowed Rodis to proceed with the federal jury trial phase of his lawsuit against SFPD Officers Barry and Liddicoet. The appeal to the US Supreme Court may cause a further two-year delay of the five-year old case.
To see The Daily Case Report regarding this case, click here.