The 10th anniversary of my Walgreens arrest
At a City College ballroom class last month, I introduced myself to a retired sergeant of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). He said my name sounded familiar and I assumed it was because I had served for 18 years as an elected member of the City College Governing Board. But, he said, no, no, it wasn’t that. Then, with a flash of recognition, he smiled and said: “You’re the guy in the memorandum sent to police officers many years ago. You’re that Walgreens guy, right?” Bingo.
February 17th this week is the 10th anniversary of the Walgreens incident that made me famous, at least among San Francisco police officers.
I recall I was working in my office late in the afternoon on that day in 2003 when I started sneezing. I decided to walk to the local pharmacy, Walgreens, about a block away, to buy some Claritin for my allergy. After picking up other sundry items at the store, I lined up to pay for them at the counter. I reached for my wallet, took out a bill and handed it over to the cashier.
The cashier examined my $100 bill, held it up against the light, then, following standard practice, used a counterfeit detector pen to draw a line mark on the currency. It’s fake if it comes out black; it’s genuine if it’s yellowish. The result was light brown, so it was good. I expected to receive my change and then return to my office as I still had much work to do.
A smallish Benjamin Franklin
But the 21-year old cashier held on to my bill, examined it again, and then called her manager. She appeared suspicious about the bill which featured a smallish Benjamin Franklin figure compared to the enlarged image on the newer $100 bill that she was used to handling.
The manager, Dennis Snopikov, came over, examined the bill and applied the same pen on it, coming up with the same result. He then told me to wait as he returned to his office to check on my bill again. After some time, I walked over to the manager’s office and knocked on his door. When he stepped out, he told me he believed it was counterfeit. I asked him why he thought that when his store pen had established that it was genuine.
As the manager was explaining that he could not find a watermark or magnetic strip on my bill, I noticed that four uniformed San Francisco police officers had entered the store. A female police officer named Michelle Liddicoet approached Snopikov to ask him about his 911 call. She then turned to me to ask if I was the one who had used the counterfeit bill. I asked her how she was certain it was counterfeit.
Examining the bill that was handed over to her by Snopikov, she said it was obvious from how it looked. I said “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s counterfeit.” She then demanded my driver’s license which I handed over to her as I identified myself as an attorney, with my law office just a block away, and that I was also 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 replied. Her next words are the last words you ever want to hear: “Put your hands behind your back.” I dutifully complied but I asked her why that was necessary as I didn’t know the bill was fake if it really was fake. Officer Liddicoet didn’t respond and just proceeded to handcuff me and to walk me out of the store in front of all the customers and store employees – many who knew me. It was a most humiliating experience.
Exclude from police report
Officer Liddicoet led me to her police car and placed me in the back seat, while I was still in handcuffs, and she then sat in the front seat, directly in front of me. Before her partner could start the car, another officer walked over to her, leaned over and whispered, “Under the circumstances, I would appreciate it if you didn’t include my name in the police report.” I was seated right behind her so I heard every word. “Yes, Sarge,” she replied.
I did not recognize the “Sarge” and I wondered what “circumstances” he was referring to. I was then transported to the Taraval police station for further investigation. After I was led to a holding cell, the handcuffs behind my back were removed and my left wrist was cuffed to a rail. I asked to call my wife but my request was denied even as I pointed to a sign on the wall which advised that I was entitled to one phone call. “Only if you’re arrested,” the officer said. I could only make the call after I was booked downtown, the officer added.
About two hours later, a US Treasury Department officer determined that my bill was genuine, explaining to the police officers that the watermark and magnetic strip they were looking for in the $100 bill was only introduced in 1990 and my old bill was printed in1985. I was then released and returned back to the store with a note assuring me that I was not really arrested, just “detained”.
When I reached home, I recounted my humiliating ordeal to my wife. I phoned San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown at his home late that night and, to my surprise, the mayor himself answered. I narrated what had just happened to me and he expressed sympathy and outrage. “Well, Rodel, you’re a lawyer, you know what to do,” he said.
Filing a claim against the City
A few days later, as Mayor Brown had intimated, I filed a claim against the city – the prerequisite to filing suit- alleging that San Francisco police officers had engaged in racial profiling in “detaining” me.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported the filing of my claim on the front page of its Metro section with a photo of me holding the $100 “counterfeit” bill. I was quoted as saying that “if I had been San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom, given the same circumstances, the police would have never considered taking me into custody.” I was also quoted as explaining that I filed my claim to serve as a lesson “for the police and for everybody to check their racism…If it could happen to me, who else could it happen to?”
After the news article appeared, I received a phone call from San Francisco Police Chief Earl Saunders, who expressed his own personal apologies. The first African-American police chief of the city privately acknowledged to me the presence of rednecks in his department. “Some of us landed on Plymouth Rock,” he quipped, “but, unfortunately, Plymouth Rock landed on some of us.”
The news story inspired a Filipino community meeting at a City College venue that was attended by. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Robert Morse who wrote about it in his column on February 28, 2003:
‘Ex-warriors become victims of mean streets’
“An insult and a murder. They brought a small crowd to a plain, windowless classroom at the downtown campus of City College on San Francisco’s Mission Street.
The murdered man was Vicente Pascua, 81, a Chronicle vendor and World War II veteran who was attacked early Monday on his way to work. The man who suffered the insult was Rodel Rodis, an attorney and trustee of the San Francisco Community College Board, who was handcuffed and humiliated by police last week when a Walgreen’s clerk mistakenly thought Rodis was passing a counterfeit $100 bill.
The murder and the insult had one thing in common. The victims were Filipino Americans. Wednesday night, the City College classroom was filled with Filipino Americans who were angry, hurt and mournful — but were organizing….
The people in that classroom at City College put on a clinic of a meeting. The insult to Rodis was deeply felt but emotion was always directed by pragmatism.
Some wanted to overcome the stereotype of Filipinos as passive by marching on City Hall. Others didn’t want cops fired, but suggested they be taught something about the community. One man said they could play good cop/bad cop with the cops. Whatever happens, they’ll be filing a formal complaint with the Police Commission.
After Rodis filed a civil rights claim against the city because of his arrest, e-mails of support poured in. And statements of support even came in from Filipino workers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
They’re in the Middle East, and they’re fighting injustice in San Francisco.
Many of the folks who attended that community meeting appeared at the next San Francisco Police Commission hearing to complain to the police brass about what happened to me. The new acting Police Chief Alex Fagan, Jr. promised to act on the complaint.
The following week, Chief Fagan issued a department memo clarifying that in cases like mine, suspects have to know that the currency they’re using is counterfeit before they can be arrested, and that if they insist it’s real, the officer can book the bill as evidence for later examination and give them a receipt without arresting anyone. According to my retired police sergeant classmate, this directive was known as the “Rodis Memorandum”.
Personal ax to grind
I wrote an op-ed piece in Asianweek where I asserted that “there is no doubt in my mind that if the officers had come to Walgreens and saw that it was Supervisor Gavin Newsom with the “counterfeit” bill, that they would have treated him quite differently. At the most, they would have reminded him to be more careful next time about what money he uses to pay for his goods. Not in a million years would they have ever considered putting him in handcuffs.”
Soon after my Asianweek article appeared, I received a surprise call from Supervisor Newsom who asked me if I had “a personal ax to grind” against him. I said, no, of course not. “Then why did you single me out in your article?” he asked. I explained that he was the most prominent white politician in the city and I just wanted to make a point.
Newsom then responded that it was ironic I used him as an example because “what happened to you happened to me”, he said as I gasped in disbelief.
Newsom then related an incident that occurred when he was still in the private sector after he brought the daily earnings of his restaurant (Balboa Café) to the local bank to deposit. He said the teller began counting the money when she paused to apply a counterfeit detector pen to a $100 bill she found suspicious. The test confirmed that the bill was fake.
“So what happened next?” I asked Newsom. “Well, she returned the $100 counterfeit bill to me and told me to be more careful next time,” he answered.
I was flabbergasted. I told Newsom that what happened to him was not what happened to me. If it had been me, the teller would have likely called the police and had me arrested, I said. “Oh,” he replied.
Newsom had just confirmed my point. He would later be elected mayor of San Francisco twice and then win a statewide race as Lt. Governor, one cardiac arrest beat away from being California’s governor.
Settlement with Walgreens
Fearing that I might sue Walgreens, the local Walgreens director of marketing sent me a humongous bouquet of flowers with a card expressing the apologies of the store. About two weeks later, a Pinay came to my office. “Thanks to you,” she said, “my husband was just promoted as the new manager of the Walgreens store” replacing Snopikov. [It was later revealed that Snopikov had previously called the police on two customers – who were both minorities – who he accused of using counterfeit bills which turned out to be genuine.]
Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the national chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) wrote the CEO of Walgreens to ask him to investigate instances of racial profiling in its 8,300 stores in 50 states throughout the US. A Walgreens representative replied that it would do so. A Fil-Am physician in Houston wanted to initiate a nationwide boycott of Walmart. It’s Walgreens, not Walmart, I wrote him as I thanked him for his support.
After I filed a civil suit against Walgreens, I was deposed by a Walgreens lawyer who asked me for an example of the damage to my reputation caused by the false arrest. I showed him the front page of a Manila newspaper which reported on my arrest for handing out a counterfeit $100 bill at Walgreens but which omitted the part about the bill being genuine. Soon after my deposition, I reached a settlement with Walgreens.
I also filed suit against the SFPD after I learned the identity of the “Sarge” who had asked Officer Liddicoet not to include his name in the police report. Sgt. Jeff Barry had immediately recognized me when he entered the store with another officer. So he radioed for two more officers to assist him. Where were these officers when 81-year old Vicente Pascua was being mugged and killed?
‘He hates cops’
Officer Liddicoet confided to a Filipino American police sergeant that when she arrived at the Walgreens store, she saw Sgt. Barry at the entrance. “What’s up, Sarge?” she asked him. “It’s a lawyer who hates cops,” he replied. “We’ll take care of him, Sarge, don’t worry,” she said. She knew how the Blue Code worked and take care of me she did.
I knew Sgt. Barry when our sons were classmates at St. Stephen’s Elementary School. My last encounter with him occurred about seven years before when I went to see him about my son as he was the director of the boys athletics program at the Catholic school. Instead of listening to my concern, however, Sgt. Barry berated me about a City College policy. He said that his brother-in-law was a member of the campus police and that our board policy of not allowing campus police to carry firearms posed a danger to him.
I told Sgt. Barry that the gun-free zone policy – which was in place before I was elected to the Board – had been working and that there was no reason to change it. But he was not mollified and remained infuriated by it and angry at me for not agreeing with him.
Little did I know then that Sgt. Barry would carry his petty grudge against me for 7 years simply because I did not agree with him. How petty? In his deposition, Sgt. Barry insisted that from where he stood, 20 feet away, he could tell that my $100 bill was counterfeit.
Qualified immunity defense
Although my lawsuit against Sgt. Barry and the SFPD was filed in the state superior court, the deputy city attorney assigned to the case, Scott Weiner, moved the case to the federal court where, he mistakenly believed, probable cause is not required to arrest anyone.
Just before the federal suit was scheduled to go to a jury trial, Weiner filed a motion to dismiss the case based on his contention that police officers are not liable for damages even if they acted negligently because they are accorded qualified immunity.
Federal Judge Maxine Chesney denied Weiner’s motion ruling that because the arrest was illegal as the officers did not have probable cause to believe that I intended to defraud the store, they were not covered by qualified immunity.
Weiner appealed Judge Chesney’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in my favor holding that public employees are entitled to qualified immunity, but not when they fail to act on their considerable law enforcement powers in a reasonable way and take into account all factors present at the scene Rodis v. City and County of San Francisco (9th Cir. Aug. 28, 2007) 499 F.3rd 1094.
The court explained that mere possession of counterfeit currency is not a crime. Some evidence that the possessor was aware that the currency was counterfeit is needed before it can be determined that a crime has been committed. “A person is not criminally responsible unless criminal intent accompanies the wrongful act” is a maxim of the law.
“Even without knowledge of Rodis’ identity and local ties,” the majority wrote, “based on the totality of the other relevant facts, no reasonable or prudent officer could have concluded that Rodis intentionally and knowingly used a counterfeit bill”.
US Supreme Court remand
Wiener then filed a petition for certiorari (review) with the US Supreme Court in May of 2008 after a larger panel of Ninth Circuit judges rejected his request for rehearing. On January 26, 2009, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the Ninth Circuit decision and remanded it back to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider in light of a recent high court decision (Pearson v. Callahan) dealing with qualified immunity.
When the matter was returned to the same three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit, the lone dissenter in the first case, Judge Consuelo Callahan (whose husband is a Stockton police captain), convinced the other two judges to join her in reversing the initial decision. On March 9, 2009, the Ninth Circuit reversed its 2007 decision and ruled that “although the arrest was unfortunate, we cannot say that the Defendants’ belief that it was fake was plainly incompetent. The arrest, therefore, was not clearly established as unlawful.” Rodis v. City and County of San Francisco, 558 F.3d 964 (9th Cir. 2009)
In other words, even though it was clearly a mistake to have arrested me, the court ruled that the mistake was nonetheless “reasonable”. But how could my arrest be reasonable when it was not made in good faith and was dictated by a petty 7-year old grievance?
After winning the case for Sgt. Jeff Barry, Scott Weiner went on to run for San Francisco Supervisor. When he was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and asked to list his achievements, Weiner cited winning his case against me as among the most notable.
That’s right. Providing police officers with immunity from lawsuits for arresting anyone without probable cause for the pettiest of gripes is a remarkable achievement for Supervisor Weiner.
Real money, false arrest
On June 8, 2008, the San Francisco Bay Guardian featured my case on its front cover with my photo under the heading “Real money, false arrest: Why is the City Attorney’s Office aggressively trying to overturn a good police accountability ruling?” The article by G.W. Schulz concluded with this: “The US dollar may be losing value internationally, but a $100 bill from the 1980s could (and did) cost San Francisco big bucks.”
But at least it gained Sgt. Barry’s lawyer, Scott Weiner, a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Over the last 10 years, I thank God for all the good friends who supported me through thick and thin like the Asian American judge who called me when she first read the news report about my arrest. She was so horrified, she said, the first thing she did was to change all her $100 bills into $20 bills.
(Send comments to [email protected] or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).