Although I have never met George Floyd, I can relate to what he experienced at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day in 2020 because on Presidents’ Day in 2003, I was also arrested and handcuffed by four San Francisco police officers for passing a “counterfeit” bill.
We have all watched the George Floyd video that has been viewed by billions of people all over the world. On May 25, 2020, at about 8PM, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, bought a pack of cigarettes from Cup Foods, a grocery store he frequented, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which he paid for with a $20 bill. After the purchase, the cashier examined the $20 bill and considered it to be counterfeit. He dialed 911 which brought 4 police officers to the black minivan outside the store where Floyd was sitting with 2 other people.
The officers arrested Floyd and placed him in handcuffs behind his back and led him across the street to a police cruiser where he was brought to the driver’s side of the back seat. For some reason, one of the white officers, Derek Chauvin, forcefully pulled him to the passenger's side and out of the car, causing Floyd to fall onto the pavement.
The video from a bystander across the street showed Floyd face down on the ground with Chauvin kneeling on his neck, another applying pressure on his torso, another pressed on his legs, with a fourth standing nearby. Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying "I can't breathe", "please, please, please", "please, man", and calling out for his dead mother.
In her TV talk show, conservative Fox News columnist Jeanine Pirro described with horror what she saw on the video: “George Floyd was begging, saying he couldn’t breathe, saying please, please,” Ms. Pirro told her viewers. “This man who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd does not deserve to be free in this country.”
The video showed Floyd being pressed to the ground for 8 minutes and 45 seconds until he had lost consciousness. An hour later, after an ambulance brought Floyd to the hospital, he was pronounced dead.
My similar experience with George Floyd is that I, too, was arrested by 4 police officers also for using an alleged counterfeit currency, in my case a $100 bill. This occurred on Presidents’ Day, February 17, 2003 when I walked over to the Walgreens store a block from my office to buy some Claritin for my allergy. After picking up other sundry items at the store, I lined up at the counter, reached for my wallet, took out a bill which I handed 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 on the currency. It’s fake if it comes out black; it’s genuine if it’s yellowish. It was visible to me that the result was light brown, so it was good. I expected to receive my change and then to return to my office.
A smallish Benjamin Franklin
But the 21-year old Walgreens cashier held on to my bill, examined it again, and then called her manager on the phone. I could overhear her report that she found the bill suspicious because it featured a smallish Benjamin Franklin figure compared to the larger image on the $100 bills that she was used to handling.
The manager, Dennis Snopikov, came out and examined the bill, applied the same pen on it which came 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 so when his store pen had established that it was genuine.
The manager explained that he could not find a watermark or magnetic strip on my bill. As he explained this, four uniformed San Francisco police officers 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 replied yes but 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. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s counterfeit,” I said. 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, a member and former president of the San Francisco Community College Board which I mentioned only to impress upon her that I would not be the kind to use a counterfeit bill.
But she was not impressed. “I know who you are and you should be ashamed of yourself,” she countered. Her next words to me are the last words you would 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, 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.” As I was seated right behind her, 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, he explained.
About an hour 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 were only introduced in 1990 and that my old bill was printed in1985. I was then released from my handcuff and returned back to the store with an official note declaring that I was not really arrested, just “detained”.
When I reached home, I recounted my humiliating ordeal to my wife. I then phoned San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown at his home 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 suggested, I filed a claim against his city – the procedural prerequisite to filing a civil 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. In the article, 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 to me. Chief Sanders, the first African-American police chief of the city, privately acknowledged to me the presence of rednecks in his department. When he’s not in his police uniform, he said, old white women tightly clutch their bags when they’re near him. “You see some of us didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” he quoted from Malcolm X, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.”
The Chronicle news story inspired a Filipino community meeting at a City College venue that was attended by members of the Filipino community. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Robert Morse attended the meeting and 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 right 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 my unlawful arrest. The new acting SFPD 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, police officers need to have some evidence that the suspects were aware that the currency was counterfeit before they can be arrested, and that if they insist it’s real, the officers can book the bill as evidence for later examination and give them a receipt without arresting anyone. This directive was widely known in the SFPD as the “Rodis Memorandum”.
Personal ax to grind
After the police commission hearing, I wrote an op-ed piece in Asianweek where I asserted: “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 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 call at my office 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 said that it was ironic I used him as an example because “what happened to you happened to me”, he said to my disbelief.
Newsom related an incident that occurred before he was a supervisor 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 him. “Well, she returned the $100 counterfeit bill to me and told me to be more careful next time,” Newsom answered.
I told him that he had just confirmed my point. If it had been me, the bank teller would have called the police and had me arrested, I said.
Settlement with Walgreens
The publicity around my arrest caused the local Walgreens Director of Marketing to send me a bouquet of flowers with a card expressing the apologies of the store. About two weeks later, a Filipina came to my office to express her thanks. Her husband had just been promoted the new manager of the Walgreens store replacing Snopikov. It was learned that Snopikov had called the police on two previous customers – who were both minorities – who he accused of using counterfeit bills which also turned out to be genuine.
Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the New York based 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 Fil-Am physician in Houston wanted to initiate a nationwide boycott of Walmart to protest my treatment. 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 my arrest for handing out a counterfeit $100 bill at Walgreens but the article omitted to mention that the bill was genuine.
Soon after my deposition, I reached an amicable 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.
‘He hates cops’
Officer Liddicoet confided to a Filipino American police sergeant, a friend of mine, 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 assured him.
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 his brother-in-law was a member of the campus police and that our board policy of not allowing campus police to carry firearms put him in danger.
I told Sgt. Barry that the college 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 the policy 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. How petty? In his deposition, Sgt. Barry declared 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 represent Barry and the City, Scott Weiner, now the state senator from San Francisco, moved my case to the federal court for tactical reasons.
Just before the federal suit was set 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.
As Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote in her majority decision:
“Defendants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity because (1) they did not violate Rodis's constitutional rights, and (2) even if they did not have probable cause to arrest him, at the time of the arrest the law was not clearly established such that a reasonable officer should have known the arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. However, arresting Rodis without any evidence he intended to use the bill to defraud the store or that he knew (or believed) the bill was fake was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Further, it was clearly established at the time of the arrest that Defendants' conduct was unlawful. Thus, both arguments Defendants put forth are without merit.”
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, 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”.
Unfortunately, the favorable Ninth Circuit decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court by Weiner, now the state senator of San Francisco, and the top court remanded the case back to the same 3 judge panel that ruled in my case. The dissenting judge, Consuelo Callahan, was able to reverse the decision. I later learned that she is married to a retired captain in the Stockton Police Department and she should have recused herself from the case as it involves the personal liability of police officers and their qualified immunity.
Regardless of the final outcome, the fact remains that since my “arrest” in 2003, there have been no other arrests in San Francisco for passing alleged counterfeit currency. This is because police officers now know that before they can arrest anyone for passing counterfeit currency, they need some evidence that the suspect was aware the currency was counterfeit.
But the California counterfeit currency law is the same as the one in Minnesota which states (Sec.609.632) that “whoever, with intent to defraud, utters or possesses with intent to utter any counterfeit United States currency..., having reason to know that the… currency, note, or obligation or security is forged, counterfeited, falsely made, altered, or printed, is guilty of offering counterfeited currency.”
In other words, in Minnesota as in California, the police officers who arrested Floyd needed proof that he was aware the currency he used was counterfeit which would have required them to interview Floyd and to check his pockets and his wallet to see if he had other counterfeit currency on him before they arrested him.
The owner of Cup Foods told the press that he did not believe Floyd, a regular store customer, even knew he used a counterfeit bill. He said the usual procedure in such cases is for police officers to ask a few questions about the counterfeit, "put it in a bag and take it." He expressed surprise that the officers arrested George Floyd.
I would not have been arrested if I had used that $20 “counterfeit” bill in Minneapolis on Memorial Day but that is because I am not an African American man like George Floyd and that was his real crime.
The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) issued a statement strongly condemning the police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd.
“As Filipino Americans, and members of the Asian American community at large, we are keenly aware of the ways racism can adversely affect a community. Because of this, we must join the chorus in support of black lives. For their families and friends. For the soul of our nation. We cannot and should not let their tragedies become just uncomfortable memories.”
Read more: https://globalnation.inquirer.net/64425/the-10th-anniversary-of-my-walgreens-arrest-2#ixzz6Ny0PkbHi
[Rodel Rodis has been a member of the California bar since 1980 and still has his law office near the Walgreens store on Ocean Avenue. Before he was an attorney, Rodis taught the History of Filipinos in America at San Francisco State University. He served as president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and was the first Filipino American elected to public office in San Francisco when he served for 18 years on the San Francisco Community College Board. Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800].