A trip to the bank turned tragic for a Florida man in 2008 when an employee mistook him for a robber. Rodolfo Valladares was trying to cash a $100 check when a Bank of America employee triggered a silent alarm, causing the SWAT team to storm the bank and violently apprehend him. When it was all over, Valladares was left with permanent, life-changing injuries and Bank of America faced a lawsuit.
While some might think that what happened to Valladares is, while certainly tragic, an unavoidable outcome of the Bank of America’s employee’s fear, the Florida Supreme Court ultimately sided with Valladares.
Why Can a Person Be Liable For Filing a Police Report With a Mistaken Identity?
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision on Valladeres v. Bank of America stated that the court set out to address whether those who falsely report criminal conduct to law enforcement “have a privilege or immunity from civil liability for the false report.” In other words, should someone who has made a false police report be excused from having to pay up in civil court?
The court noted the dangers that could arise if those who report crimes were given absolute immunity from prosecution—even if the reports were false. The decision in Valladeres v. Bank of America then mentioned another case where it was decided that false statements made to police officers are not protected from liability for defamation, because this would prevent the court from being a place where every wrong can be addressed.
The Supreme Court further stated that someone who has been injured as a result of a false police report (as in Rodolfo Valladares’s case) does have grounds for instigating a civil suit when the report is made by someone who has “knowledge or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have knowledge that the accusations are false or acts in a gross or flagrant in reckless disregard of the rights of the party exposed” (italics mine).
Put another way, a person who files a false police report is liable when they act in such a way that they ignore information that indicates their accusations are false or when their reckless oversight of the rights of the person they have accused puts that person in danger.
How Is Calling the Police “Reckless?”
The legal concept of “recklessness” mentioned by the Florida Supreme Court in its decision can be defined as when someone proceeds with risky behavior even as they recognize its possible implications—although they are not looking for their behavior to have harmful consequences Alternatively, recklessness can be defined as a state of mind in which a person does not care about the consequences of their actions.
So what, exactly, happened at that Bank of America that day in 2008 that made the conduct alleged in a false police rise to the level of recklessness?
Several hours before Valladares arrived at the bank branch on July 3rd, an e-mail was sent out to staff members to be on the lookout for a robber. As the Supreme Court decision noted, Bank of America employee Meylin Garcia believed that Rodolfo Valladares was the bank robber from the moment he walked through the door. As she told the court: “As soon as Mr. Valladares walked in the bank, I saw him, and since he was wearing a Miami Heat hat, the sunglasses—I mean I saw him, and automatically I panicked, I got scared.” As Valladares approached her desk, Garcia pressed a silent alarm.
Although pictures of the robber showed him wearing a Miami Heat hat and sunglasses, he was also a white man. Valladares is Hispanic. Additionally, the robber appeared to be in his 60s and weighed about 145 pounds. Valladares was 46 and weighed more than 200 pounds. Even after Valladares showed Garcia his driver’s license (with the name on the driver’s license matching the name on his check), she did nothing to cancel the alarm. As is written in the Supreme Court decision, Garcia: “studied his license again and looked at Valladares, but still failed to differentiate Valladares’s Hispanic characteristics from those of the white male depicted in the e-mail she had seen earlier that day and failed to take any steps to report the innocent transactional facts.”
Later, Meylin Garcia would say that Valladares did not act suspiciously as he interacted with the bank employees. He never made any threats, presented a note, or made a demand. He didn't appear to be armed or act with a criminal intent. Nonetheless, Garcia informed a colleague that the bank robber from the e-mail had approached her. This colleague, in turn, took Garcia at her word, doing nothing to verify whether Valladares was an armed bank robber or a customer.
The Supreme Court summed up its support of Valladares, its rejection of the idea that Bank of America had just made a mistake when it wrote: “Public policy supports a limited immunity for those who make innocent, simple mistakes, but that limited immunity cannot extend to conduct that recklessly disregards the rights of others.” A person can make a mistake, but once you realize it’s a mistake, you should correct it before someone gets hurt.
Authored by Andrea Babinec, LegalMatch Legal Writer