I may have been more prone to emphasize the race aspect of the July 16 arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley because of my own personal experience. When I was arrested on February 17, 2003 by two white San Francisco police officers who responded to a 911 call from a white Walgreens manager who thought I might possibly be using a counterfeit $100 bill to purchase items, I believe I was racially profiled. If I had been white, would I have been arrested that night?
I expressed this viewpoint after the police had handcuffed me and hauled me off to the police precinct where I remained cuffed to a rail in the holding cell before the officers verified from the US Secret Service that my bill was genuine and released me. In an article that appeared in AsianWeek, I wrote that if this had happened to San Francisco Supervisor (now Mayor) Gavin Newsom, the Walgreens manager would never have called the police and the officers would never have arrested and handcuffed Newsom or taken him to a police station to verify the authenticity of his $100 bill.
Two weeks after my article appeared, I received a phone call from Gavin Newsom who was quite upset. “Rodel, why did you use my name? Do you have an axe to grind against me?” he asked. “No, Gavin”, I replied, “I only used your name to emphasize a point. If I had used some other white elected official who wasn’t as well known as an example, it wouldn’t have been as effective.”
Newsom then told me it was “ironic” that I picked him because “what happened to you happened to me”. Shocked, I asked him what happened. Newsom then related an incident that occurred when he was still in the private sector when he brought the daily earnings of his restaurant (Balboa Café) to the bank to deposit. He said the teller began counting the money and applied a counterfeit detector pen to a $100 bill which she found suspicious. The result confirmed that it was fake – unlike in my case where the pen applied by both the Walgreens cashier and manager showed that my $100 bill was genuine.
“So what happened next?” I asked Newsom. “Well, she returned the $100 bill to me and told me to be careful next time,” he answered.
“Gavin, what happened to you didn’t happen to me. If it had been me, she would have called the cops!” I told him. That was precisely the point I was making in my article and Newsom had just confirmed it.
In my 2003 Walgreens incident, Sgt. Jeff Barry, the police officer who was the first to respond to the 911 call, immediately recognized me because our sons were classmates in a parochial school and because of an argument we had about a City College policy (I was then an elected City College Trustee) of not allowing campus police to carry their firearms on campus which, he said, posed a risk to his brother-in-law who was a campus police officer. Barry was very agitated about the issue and demanded that we change the policy.
Because I didn’t agree with his opinion, Sgt. Barry seized the Walgreens opportunity to provide me with a “teachable moment”.
Although he was the first to arrive at the scene, Sgt. Barry remained at the Walgreens entrance, careful to ensure that I didn’t see him. When Officer Michelle Liddicoet arrived and asked him what was happening, Sgt. Barry told her, pointing to me, “It’s that lawyer. He hates cops.” Liddicoet then replied, “Don’t worry, Sarge. I’ll take care of him.” So she proceeded to arrest me, place me in handcuffs and transport me in the back of a police squad car to the Taraval police station.
I did not learn of Barry’s presence at the scene or of his role in my arrest until I read his name in the police report. Barry wanted to teach me a lesson and so I decided to also teach him a lesson. I sued him and Liddicoet for wrongful arrest and for violating my civil rights.
In his July 27, 2009 New York Times op-ed piece, Randy Cohen encouraged Prof. Gates to sue Sgt. Crowley because “filing suit can be a way to pursue social justice.” As Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union explained, lawsuits can be “an important tool for reform when coupled with advocacy and public education efforts and when the circumstances are conducive to change.”
With that perspective, I had also sued Walgreens and it resulted in Walgreens apologizing to me, firing the manager who called 911, and hiring a long-time Filipino American employee to replace him. My lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department resulted in a major clarification of police departmental policy - officers could no longer arrest suspects who possess suspected counterfeit currency unless there was some probable cause to believe that the suspect was aware that the currency was counterfeit.
My case against Barry and Liddicoet has gone up the Ninth Circuit to the US Supreme Court and back down to the Ninth Circuit and up again to the US Supreme Court. It has resulted in two published Ninth Circuit Court opinions on the issue of whether police officers have qualified immunity to be “immune” from civil lawsuits for their abuse of police powers (“Rodis v. City and County of San Francisco ”).
The Supreme Court decision on my case will affect the lawsuit of the 72-year old grandmother in Texas who was tasered by a highway patrol officer for refusing to sign a speeding ticket and thousands of other cases filed by individuals who have sued police officers for the abuse of their police powers.
After more than six years of litigation and expending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to press a lawsuit against two officers represented by a City Attorney’s office that has spent and can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money to defend the suit, I often wonder who was really taught a lesson.