Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rodis v. City and County of San Francisco (9th Cir. - Aug. 28, 2007)

It's generally a case that interests me when a California attorney is a party to the lawsuit. This case is no exception.

It involves Rodel Rodis, who's an attorney in San Francisco as well as an elected public official (a member of the Community College Board of San Francisco City College). In 2003, Rodis goes into a drugstore near his office to buy some tiny items and plunks down a $100 bill to pay for them. (As an aside, I didn't know that being a public official pays so well that the smallest bills you typically carry are bennies. But that's another story.)

The clerk thinks the bill looks and feels funny, so goes to her manager. The manager thinks it might be counterfeit as well, even after it tests as genuine with a counterfeit pen. They then call the police, and Rodis hangs out during this entire period; indeed, he even pays for the stuff with another (indisputably genuine) $100 bill in the meantime. The police come, and they can't totally decide, so they elect to call the Secret Service to figure it all out. And decide that, in the meantime, they'll just arrest Rodis and take him down to the station.

Turns out that the bill was totally genuine. At which point Rodis -- understandably miffed at being arrested for doing absolutely nothing wrong -- sues.

The officers move for qualified immunity, claiming that they had probable cause to arrest him. The district court disagrees, defendants appeal, and the Ninth Circuit affirms in a divided vote.

Judge Dorothy Nelson authors the majority opinion and holds that, in toto, there was a wholesale absence of probable cause, especially in light of the fact that the bill had tested as genuine and there was no evidence at all that Rodis intended to defraud. Judge Callahan dissents, arguing that although it's unfortunate (obviously)that Rodis was unjustly arrested, the (allegedly) unusual look and feel of the bill, combined with his use of this bill to purchase small items, was enough to create qualified immunity; i.e., either creates probable cause or is close enough for government work.

It's an interesting dispute. There's also an interesting paragraph of Judge Nelson's opinion in which she says the following:

"What is more, several facts known to the officers at the time of the arrest significantly decreased the probability that Rodis violated § 472. Viz., Rodis had other $100 bills in his possession that were genuine, one of which he used to complete the transaction; the counterfeit detector pen indicated the bill was genuine; and the officers knew Rodis was both a San Francisco attorney and a locally-elected public official with strong ties to the community in which the store was located. Specifically, Barry had known Rodis 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. Also, Rodis informed Liddicoet prior to his arrest that he was a public figure, and that he lived and worked within two blocks of the store."

Now, I'm sympathetic to those sentiments, and the first two facts do indeed (in my mind, at least) diminish the probability that Rodis was guilty. The other facts in the paragraph, however, start to sound very much like an argument that Rodis probably wasn't guilty because he's an "upstanding citizen" with wealth, power, and prestige; indeed, he's a member of the elementary school PTA, for Christ's sake!

And we all know no one like that is likely to commit a crime, right? That probable cause to arrest someone who's an elected official, who's a member of the PTA, and who's an attorney should require more than that required to arrest someone who's less wealthy and powerful. Right?