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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Rodolfo Valladares wore the wrong hat to the wrong Miami bank while trying to cash a $100 check in a case of mistaken identity that's led to a court battle over $3.3 million.
A bank teller mistook Valladares for a robber in 2008 after seeing a photo of that suspect in the morning. The robber wore a Miami Heat hat, like the one Valladares was wearing, so the teller panicked and hit the silent alarm.
Police rushed in within minutes and ordered everyone on the floor. An officer kicked Valladares in the head before handcuffing him, according to court records. His lawyers say he still suffers blurred vision, headaches and anxiety from the head injury. A jury awarded Valladares $3.3 million, but an appeals court agreed with Bank of America that citizens can't be held responsible if they report a suspected crime, even if they're wrong, as long as they do so in good faith.
Now the issue is before the Florida Supreme Court, which can restore the award, order a new trial, or agree with the appeals court and rule that Valladares should get nothing.
Justices repeatedly pointed out that there has to be "something more" to the case than just calling the police and being wrong.
Valladares' attorney Joel Perwin said the bank was negligent by failing to properly train the teller. He also said the teller was negligent in not calling off police once she realized Valladares, then 46, wasn't the robber.
The teller had been shown a picture in the morning of a man wearing a Heat hat, but tellers weren't given the picture to keep by their stations to compare to a potential suspect. She later testified that she figured out her mistake as police arrived, Perwin said.
"They were coming in, she did see the license, she did see the check, she did know at that point that it wasn't the guy and she didn't do anything to call it off," he said.
Randolph Liebler, the lawyer representing Bank of America, said Valladares' lawyers only sought damages on claims of false imprisonment and battery. While the jury found the bank was negligent alerting police, it didn't find it responsible for the police actions against Valladares, he said. He wouldn't comment following the arguments.
Some of the justices seemed to agree the teller made mistakes that go beyond simply confusing Valladares for a bank robber.
"'Oh, I saw a picture this morning and I'm going to call it in.' OK, that's good faith," said Justice Fred Lewis. "But then you find out that that's not a robber in your bank, it's one of one of your customers and you know that before they kick him in the head, that to me cries out for some remedy."
Justice Barbara Pariente also pointed out Valladares did nothing to raise suspicion, saying the teller acted "recklessly."
"She relied on some picture she had seen some time back," Pariente said.
And relying on the hat of a popular local basketball team to identify him was also questionable. Heat gear was a popular item just two years after the team won its first NBA championship.
"It's kind of like saying that if you have a picture of someone in Tallahassee who's suspicious wearing an FSU hat that we can call the law on everybody in Tallahassee because that's all they wear up here," Lewis said.